Savoring little victories.

Yesterday I finished and posted an article on Medium about an obscure Mac game that I loved as a child. What I didn’t expect was Medium to highlight it in their curator program. What does it mean to be selected by the staff? I’ll let the staff at Medium explain.

 

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Okay. Maybe this may not seem like an absolute big deal. It’s not a publishing firm writing back to me that they’ll publish my novel. It’s not like I have even published a novel in which I’m earning millions of dollars. No. Nothing that grand. This is a small victory.

And yet, do small victories not feel like huge victories at times? For us writers, it can be a boost that our work has potential. It can be that one little, gentle nudge that encourages us to keep on writing, no matter how difficult and insurmountable it seems with the odds stacked up against us like Mt. Everest. It’s this little bit of acknowledgment that gives us the fuel to go further distances. It’s hard to put into words exactly how important support for a writer is. If non-writers are reading this, remember to support your writing friends, even if you are giving constructive criticism.

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Image from Disney’s Princess and the Frog. Giphy.

What’s more surprising is that I don’t think it’s my best article. I feel like I have written better. On top of that, a friend pointed out that my published article had spelling and grammatical errors, which I went back and corrected. Nonetheless, my article was still chosen. I still can’t believe it.

Is this a little victory? Yes. But it’s a little victory that I’m grateful for. What are little victories you are thankful for as a writer?

If you want to read my article and subscribe to Philosophical Gamer, you can do so here. Don’t forget to click on the clap icon if you like my work. Also, if you want to subscribe, remember to click on Philosophical Gamer itself and not Jonathan Scott Griffin or you’ll get posts not related to video games. 

 

 

Who Shall Lead Ch 1: Revised and Expanded

Copyright by Jonathan Scott Griffin 

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Image copyright by Ljuba brank. Wikimedia Commons.

 

The morning was alive with many sounds. A song from the whistling wind blew gently in Arinthia’s ears, giving her promises of a beautiful new day. Not all sounds could be as pleasant. Scritch scratch, scritch scratch. Tiny little legs of the pinky-sized tip volmont spider were making a cacophony of grinding noise on one the tent’s wooden poles. Munch, crunch. No further than five feet away from her tent, a plains hopper was far more intrusive with his sounds, breakfasting on blades of grass.

Like all Xibians, Arinthia was blind. But this didn’t work to her detriment. Her keen ears more than made up for it. She could hear a blossom fall from a flower, or the first drop of rain splash from twenty feet away. If sounds grew too intense, she was able to shut them out; a light gift that came with the curse. At this very moment, she could have even shut out the sounds volmont spider and the plains hopper. She never did. They always helped get her up. For thousands of generations the Xibians had lived without sight, the very concept of it being foreign and incomprehensible to them.

Arinthia arose yawning, and put on her robe. The dandel hide fur, warm against her body, sent warmth up her spine on such a cold morning. Winter was coming, that much was certain. The change of seasons announced as much with in the air.

Crawling out of her tent, she was greeted by the thumping of a pair of footsteps walking in a wide gape, carrying a quick stride. It could only be that of Keyro, one of the tribes top hunters.

“Good day, Arinthia,” he said, almost too loudly which almost hurt everyone’s hearing. “How are you this fine day?”

“I don’t know,” said Arinthia, “seeing as the day has only just begun. What do you want, Keyro?”

“For you to join me on the hunt.”

“And by hunt,” she formed the sentence slowly, “do you mean that I’ll be able to carry a bow and take down animals as well?”

“That’s silly!” he made no effort to disguise his disgust. “You’re a woman. Your job is to clean the carcasses and to cook.”

“Can’t do it! I’d probably burn it or season the meat with the wrong herbs.”

“It’s not that hard!” protested Keyro.

“Then if it’s not that hard, then I’m sure that you can manage.”

“But it’s not a man’s job.”

“Nor is it my job either,” said Arinthia, hoping to cut the conversation short.

“You really need to be put in your place!” he chided.

Arinthia sighed inwardly. No such luck.

“You were made by Father above to be subservient” continued Keyro, his finger noisily slashing through the air. “What do you think he’ll say when your spirit passes through the gates of the dead, up the bridge to the island above? Can you imagine how disappointed he’ll be in his disobedient daughter, always mouthing off? He’ll teach you a lesson, you can be sure. Father will punish you by having you clean the pots and pans of the Eternal Kitchen forever.”

“Well, if that’s the case, then I’ll have an ally in Mother above,” huffed Arinthia. “She’ll chastise him as only a woman can, and she’ll make him sleep alone while she takes all the royal bedding. Then she’ll threaten him with an annulment of their marriage.”

“How dare you speak lightly of Father above!” roared Keyro.

“How dare you,” she raised her voice even louder, but careful so as not to cause his ears to bleed, “to even think I’d want to be sealed as your companion when you’re not a man, but a mere boy who failed his rite of initiation.”

Now she could her Keyro’s blood flush in his face and the grinding of his teeth. In a sense, she could hear his anger, and it was palpable. Her sharp tongue had cut through a nerve. All males within the tribe had to embark on rites of initiation. Usually it involved taking down some huge animal.

“If you weren’t a woman, I’d slap you across the face,” he hissed.

“What difference does it make it I’m a woman or not,” she retorted. “You shouldn’t be hitting anyone, be it male or female.”

The ground reverberated like a mild earthquake as a heavy staff hit the ground. “Lay a hand on her and I’ll lay my staff on you,” came the raspy voice of Jorgek.

“You don’t scare me, old man!” boasted Keyro.

Stupid, Arinthia thought to herself. If you wanted to lie, you had to lie well. Keyro couldn’t lie to save his own life. He couldn’t even control the thumping of his own heart. The perspiration streaming off of him, like a roaring river, didn’t do him any favors, either.

“Shall I knock you on your backside,” ventured Jorgek, the air screaming against his staff as he raised it up in intimidation.

Keyro backed off, the thudding of heavy footfalls as he ran off.

“That impudent brush hopper!” exclaimed Jorgek. “My dear, did he” – The old Xibian paused, completely puzzled. Arinthia was laughing. “I fail to see what’s so funny,” he said.

“You don’t?” she asked.

Arinthia had loved Jorgek since she was a child. A grumpy and bitter man to many, it was said that he could scare the fur off an ulyix. But under his tough outer shell, he actually beat with a kind heart under his stuff exterior. It was a heart he showed to a very few, and only when trust was earned. When Arinthia was child, she had originally feared him. But unlike all the other children who were terrified of him, she alone had approached him, having possessed the courage that many her age had lacked. It was the courage to listen to each and every one of his footsteps. To hear the way he gritted his teeth in frustration, or the sound his eyelids made when they opened and closed. She let her ears swallow and digest each of the old Xibian’s sounds until she grew to learn what kind of a person he was. She grew to hear his inside appearance, not his outside. His heart was the most useful in helping her come to a conclusion regarding his personality. Certainly he yelled at young children to keep their distance, and he didn’t, generally speaking, have much patience with just about anyone else, even those his age. But when people were frustrated or in pain he was the first to lend a listening ear if they would let him.

It wasn’t to say that she became friends with the old Xibian overnight. It would have been easier to climb a steep cliff bare-handed than to break through the social barriers that Jorgek erected around himself. But open ears did a lot and Arinthia began to relate to him. This slowly broke down his walls, allowing for communication and eventually a mutual understanding. Then, as the years passed, a friendship blossomed like a flower in the spring after a long winter. From her later childhood to the present it was common for her to hunt with him in the fields, to help him make leather from the wild shagrits, and to sometimes just philosophize about life. He had taken upon himself the mantle of a grandfather she had never had.

There were only a couple of topics that were points of contention among the two of them. One such was regarding the Vun. Jorgek believed peace should and could be made between them and the Xibians, whereas Arinthia knew better. Those that could see were enemies, having killed her parents and many others. They had robbed her people of their birthright years ago. Some things could never be forgiven. But she could forgive Jorgek for holding that faulty viewpoint.

Regardless, she wasn’t thinking of any of her qualms towards him at the moment, being far more grateful that he had come to her aid. Hence her laughter. She was laughing because she knew that he would be there, for at least a little while longer, to protect her.

“You should have heard the way he ran off, the way his heart was about to burst through his chest, and the noise of his sweat flying off him,” laughed Arinthia.

“My dear girl, I heard it all,” said Jorgek. “I’m not deaf, yet. But when I am, you know what to do.”

Indeed she did. If a Xibian ever lost his or her hearing it was considered an act of mercy to take them upon the altar to offer them up as a blood sacrifice. When one had outlived their purpose, their blood could potentially heal the land if the gods were well pleased with how they lived their lives. A sobering thought, but a necessary one.

“I do,” said Arinthia. “But let’s not think of that now. Did you not tell me yesterday that you wished for the two of us to go hunting this morning?”

“Yes. I’m so glad you remembered. But I digress. I’m getting old. You know this. What hope does an old Xib like me have against the freshness of youth?”

“You mean to tell me that you just lied about being able to give Keyro a beating? Don’t doubt yourself, old man. You’ll grow senile before you lose the strength of your legs.”

“Why, you’re just as impudent as he is!”

Arinthia shrugged. “Did this just now dawn on your mind? Don’t tell me it took you over fifteen years to finally come to that conclusion. I want to think that your mind is as quick as your legs.”

“Ha!” laughed the old Xibian. “My fists are the quickest, and if you insist on being treated like a man rather than a woman, I’ll knock you on the ground so fast that you won’t hear the wind rushing past my fists.”

“No, I give up,” she laughed. “You really could give me bruises.”

“You’re absolutely right on that account. When I was a young man, I was the envy of the tribe, able to take on the chief himself. I could have any woman I wanted. I was the pinnacle of” –

“Now you’re just making stuff up,” interjected Arinthia. “Are you going to keep babbling on? At this rate the herds will have moved out of our territory.”

“My dear, you know perfectly well that my hearing is superb, whereas yours is subpar, and that I would have been the first to hear them. Not you. But I do grow weary of your biting tongue. Maybe some good old hunting will shut you up.”

“I think you’re right. I’m growing impatient.”

“Then there’s only one way to cure that,” he said in agreement, the bones of his neck cracking as he nodded. He took off, the air whistling to a near screech because of his speed. After all these years, age hadn’t slowed him. He still soared over the land, even with a staff in hand. It was Arinthia who had to keep up.

She followed him by listening to the grass bending under his feet. The flapping noises of the tents against the light breeze and the crackling of the morning fires grew fainter as they neared the mile mark out of the tribe.

They were approaching over the Dead Plains; a misplaced name if there ever was one;  considering they were far from dead, or being anywhere near the thresholds of death. Living and breathing, pulsating with all manner of life placed by the loving parents above. Soft thuds of insects echoed throughout the Dead Plains, accompanied to the thunderous tunes of the hooves of the mighty shagrits. Sometimes the mighty shagrit beasts snorted, causing the air to reverberate around their breath. Arinthia could slightly hear the brushing of a shagrit’s fur when a small fly landed upon them. Aside from the shagrits, other animals could be heard nearby. From the ground came a light but steady scratching, as the tiny claws of the little blue and red moles constructed their tunnels. Sharp teeth gritted, like a rocks being scraped against other rocks, about a quarter of a mile away. It was the ulyix’s getting ready to hunt their prey, the shagrits.

Arinthia chided herself. While her ears were too enraptured by the cacophony of nature, Jorgek had already found a suitable hiding place behind a boulder. The air whistled a musical note around his bowstring as he slowly pulled it back. The first kill would be his. Not that his obtaining the first kill mattered in the scheme of things, but she and the old Xibian had a contest as to who could achieve the first kill. For a moment it looked as if it would be his. But, as luck would have it, Jorgek, in his anticipation, didn’t pull the bow string back far enough and the arrow clanked on some rocks just a couple of inches away from the shagrit’s hoof.

The rumbling of dirt being kicked up from the lumbering beast indicated that it was running to the west. With no time to lose, she took a shot at the beast. Her arrow whistled through the air, singing of death, piercing her ears. But it found its mark. The shagrit fell to the earth. The beast’s heartbeat, still pounding like thunder, grew fainter and fainter until it was mere whisper, to whence it was no more.

“Looks like dinner is on me tonight,” boasted Arinthia.

“I let you have it,” snorted Jorgek. “Besides, I’m getting too old for hunting and cooking anyway.”

“And yet you were able to outrun me,” she pointed out to the old man.

“Is that so? No wonder I had no energy left for hunting.”

“Come, old friend,” Arinthia patted his shoulder. “I’m going to prepare you a dinner fit for a village chieftain, using only the finest herbs and spices.”

“Such as the kind you can get from the fields on any day,” he pointed out.

“You have no imagination,” laughed Arinthia.

“I’m afraid I burnt mine out many years ago,” he sighed.

“No matter, old man. Dinner is still on me.”

Back at the tribe’s encampment, Arinthia was greeted by the gossip of the women and the girls, and it was no wonder. She had blood on her from when she and Jorgek had carried down the large shagrit (something that was very unbecoming of a woman, both the hunting of an animal and the lifting of anything heavy) and they could smell it. It was a sour and bitter smell that reeked of death. To further the indignation of the tribe, Arinthia had broken another code by not washing after she had cut up the pieces of meat to leave hanging out by her tent before cooking them. If a woman or a girl was to get herself dirty, she was to wash herself immediately, something Arinthia had always refused to do. It was bad enough when the women of the tribe got a speck of dirt on them, but to have specks of blood, that was blasphemy to the gods themselves.

Jorgek would have fended her from the malicious gossip and the outright verbal abuse, but he was incapacitated, having hurt his back helping to carry the strips of meat of the animal. Not that Arinthia minded being alone. She saw herself as far from being a damsel in distress. She could hold her own, particularly against the three primary instigators, even if they held important positions of power within the tribe. There was Zylin, a daughter of a high priest, Hymla, one of daughters of the chief’s advisors, and finally, conducting herself with the greatest of pomp and the greatest of self-aggrandizement, there was Kywal, the Chief’s daughter. Zylin and Hymla followed Kywal as though she was the goddess herself, worthy of their admiration and subjugation. Certainly the chief’s daughter did order them about, but in the end they found it worth it to be a part of the elite. There were numerous members of the tribe who they snubbed their noses at, but Arinthia was the one they enjoyed showing their condescension to the most, and the reason was obvious. For at least the other women, even though they were of lower rank, still knew their place as women. But it stirred the hearts of Kywal, Zylin, and Hymla to anger that Arinthia couldn’t accept her place.

“Still acting beastly, I see,” Kywal’s voice grated like a spear piercing animal bone. “Really Arinthia, would it hurt you to exercise more feminine restraint and dignity?”

“I wouldn’t know,” Arinthia shrugged. “I had no one as an example to learn it from, least of all you three.”

The grating of Kywal’s fists clenching, along with the rapid beating of her heart, collaborated together to produce a dissonance of rage. By the sounds of things, Arinthia knew that she had crossed a line, but she didn’t care. Though Kywal wanted to strike her, Arinthia knew that she wouldn’t. Even those at the top of the hierarchy had their code of honor that they were expected strictly to adhere to, for it was given by the gods themselves, and defiling it could invoke a great cursing.

“Ignore her,” Hymla implored Kywal. “She’s just a leech, hardly worth getting upset about.”

“Leech!” exclaimed Arinthia. “You must be mistaken Hymla. From what I understand, you three always leach after what your fathers provide. As for me, I provide for myself with my own hard work.”

“Such insolence!” shrieked Kywal. “Are you insinuating that we are idle?”

“I didn’t think it was much of an insinuation as it was a statement,” retorted Arinthia, not being one to miss the mark.

“I’m sure the gods will forgive you if you strike the smugness from her face,” Zylin goaded Kywal.

“Remember the precepts,” Hymla reminded her two friends in not so much a humble way. Humility was foreign to her. But piousness, that was her nature, and she did so piously, in the hopes that they would show Arinthia that they were every bit her superiors.

“You’re right,” said Arinthia, hoping to humor them with her false humility, though she knew it wasn’t very likely. “I am unworthy in your presence, and I could certainly cultivate a spirit of meekness in following the precept the god and goddess have set before us, which, in my case, is learning to be more lady like.”

“I guess we can’t all grow up possessed with natural grace,” Kywal feigned pity. Her insincerity was evident enough, but if she would toy with Arinthia, Arinthia would toy with her. “Perhaps I was too hard on you,” the chief’s daughter continued. “Bad habits aren’t easy to break.”

“This is true,” said Arinthia. And unable to resist one last jab she added, “Just as many of us who have the unfortunate habit of spending our time in the company of spineless urchins who only tell us what we want to hear, rather than what we need to know.”

“Indeed,” huffed Kywal, with a storm raging in her as her lungs inhaled oxygen.

Kywal walked the opposite direction of Arinthia. Zylin and Hymla trailed behind her like two obedient canyon wolf pups.

Sadly, the gossip didn’t stop with those three. Gossip swarmed around her, stinging Arinthia’s ears like hornets as she made her way back to her tent. It went without saying that the other Xibians knew that whispering, no matter how low they tried to keep their voices, amounted to very little. Rather whispering was just considered a form of being polite within their culture. There was something condescending about pretending to be polite when one could just be upfront. At least with honesty you didn’t have to worry about trying to conceal your heart rate. Yet, she didn’t care as much about the gossip circulating among the adults. For there’s was spoken to one another more in a voice of concern, instead of condemnation, for Arinthia, unlike how Kywal and her two lackeys spoke of her. Yet, a tribe devoid of gossip would be the ideal.

Putting these thought out of her mind, Arinthia took an old tree branch to carve into a spear. Finding a good rock to sit on, she started to whittle away the large and bulky branch laying across her lap. This wouldn’t take long. Each time her knife carved a slice off, the branch grew thinner, more elegant. And though blind, carving wood presented no challenge to Arinthia. Each layer of the branch had a different tone. One might even say that each layer of wood had a different voice. Subtle but distinct. It only took training one’s ears to properly listen as blade and knife spoke together.

Spears weren’t the only things she carved out of wood. Over the years she had become quite skilled in carving everything from bowls and spoons to little wooden sculptures. Her favorite carving were two little wooden statues she had made of her parents. She had carved their likeness not long after they had passed away, when she was a girl of seven years of age.

Her parents had been lost to the Vun, the rival tribe. Because of this, she would always hate the Vun. She didn’t need her leaders telling her how evil they were. She already knew. When she was a little girl, she couldn’t take up a spear to kill those who murdered her parents, so she tried to honor her parents by preserving their likeness in a carving. It went without saying that her carvings weren’t perfect to start out with. It took her many years to get the likeness right, but she never doubted that she did eventually achieve their nearly, if not a perfect, likeness. She had carved many things since then, but the little wooden statues of her parents would always be her favorite.

Though she hated the Vun, there were times she felt sorry for them. Cursed with no hearing, they could only see. As a backwards society, they were denied the blessing of listening to the earth. Sight was deceitful, or so she had been told.

The time whittled away just as she whittled away on the wood, and soon she held a spear in her hands while her feet sat in a hill of wood carvings. It was a good spear. It would find its mark.

Sufficiently hungered, it was now time to prepare dinner from the hunt. She was about to gather sticks of wood for the fire pit beside her tent, when she heard the sounds of footsteps and the rattling of wood.

“You shouldn’t be up and about,” said Arinthia. “You hurt your back.”

“Listen to that,” the old Xibian said. “It doesn’t sound so bad, does it?”

“I thought I told you to let me take care of dinner.”

“I did. You said you’d cut and cook up the meat. But you didn’t say I couldn’t gather firewood for it.”

Arinthia sighed. He was a stubborn old man. “Just put them down and take a seat, old fool. “And please, let me take care of the rest.”

“Can I at least start the fire?”

“With the way your back muscle is strained right now, I’d rather you not, lest it grow worse.”

Despite the grumpy Xibian’s protests, Arinthia was already on her knees over the fire pit, scraping her knife against a flint. She had a fire blazing in no time.

It was beautiful. Each of the fire’s flames were a different instrument, making music slightly distinct from the other, but all blending together to make a chorus of pops, crackles, and low rumbles. Fire! It was the song of life, but also the song of death, and it sang of both.

Arinthia breathed in the heat of the flames while giving a prayer of thanksgiving to the god parents, as the meat roasted on a spit. The prayer would last for the whole duration of the cooking of the meat. While praying, she would continually place sticks on the fire when it was called for. The meat and fat sizzled like a rainstorm and popped like a cork above the fire. When her ears detected that the meat was fully cooked, she ceased her prayers, and cut a couple of slabs off of it for Jorgek and herself. She handed him a wood plate, she had carved years ago, with a piece of meat on it.

“Ah, your parents would be proud of you,” Jorgek smacked his lips upon taking a bite out of their kill.

“For my cooking, old man?” she asked.

“You young people always just assume,” Jorgek indigently shot back. “I was going to say that they would be proud of what a strong and independent woman you turned out to be.”

“I was of the mind I was supposed to be subservient.”

Jorgek sighed. “Who’s giving you problems, girl? Let me know, and I’ll give them three times as many.”

“Would it be a fair fight? It would be three against one. And you’re so, well, old.”

“Don’t underestimate my shriveled body, because I have the strength of ten young men,” Jorgek boasted, his hand banged against his ribcage like a drum.

“Yes, but you’d have to then take on the chief and his advisors.”

“Oh, so it’s them. Yes, that does cause a problem. Ah well, I do think your parents would be proud of you.”

“Especially if I avenged them of their murderers,” she nodded.

“Would your parents want you to harbor revenge in your heart?”

“They would want me to avenge them,” Arinthia found herself growing tense.

“Revenge or avenge?”

“Is there a difference?”

“I don’t think so,” said Jorgek thoughtfully. “Do you?”

“Yes,” said Arinthia resolutely. “They killed my parents.”

“That’s what you’ve often said, young lady. But who, who killed your parents?”

“The Vuns,” said Arinthia impatiently.

“But which Vun?”

“Does it matter?”

“If you want justice, then it better matter,” a bone Jorgek had thrown aside knocked against a log. “Only one, or a few of them, are guilty of killing your parents.”

“They are all Vun!” she protested.

“And they are all individuals,” added Jorgek.

Arinthia inwardly fumed, not bothering to hide the beats of her heart from him. The old man was so reasonable in many aspects of his life. Why couldn’t he be reasonable enough to see that the Vun were monsters beyond any sort of empathy? They were even worse than the Korrigans, who they also had to listen for. She took a huge bite out of the shagrit meat, feeling she’d rather choke on it than have to listen to anymore of Jorgek’s nonsense.

“Have you ever stopped to ask yourself how the Vun see us?” the old Xibian pressed the matter, not one to be deterred.

“As prey to hunt.”

“And we don’t hunt them?”

By now Arinthia was growing increasingly exasperated. “That’s different,” she snapped. “We are hunting them so they don’t kill us first. Ours is out of necessity and protection, not out of pure enjoyment.”

“And yet it would seem to give you pleasure to kill all the Vun for what a couple of them did to your parents,” stated Jorgek gravely.

At a loss for words, Arinthia finished up her meal before throwing the bone into the fire, which snapped much like her heart. “I don’t bask in your company in order to be put down,” she curtly told him as she left the fire to crawl into her tent.

“Offense is not my intent,” said Jorgek. “But I do know that you are far too intelligent to just buy all the lies that the chief, the elders, and the priests give.”

“Lies! What are you talking about? Generally we can detect lies.”

“Not if whoever tells the lie believes them.”

Those were the last words that she heard from him that night as she tied her tent door closed.

Inside the confines of her tent, Arinthia found solitude. Behind her bedding of furs was a mantle she had carved, and upon it were her little wooden statues of her parents.

Silently she spoke to them, but not by whispers as that would still be loud enough for Jorgek, who was still sitting by the fire outside, to hear. Instead, she opted to speak to them just by engaging in meditation. She told them that she would still avenge them, and that though she wasn’t taking on the role of a traditional Xibian woman that she still hoped to make them proud of her. The more she poured out her heart the more the tears poured out. But she wouldn’t give Jorgek the benefit of hearing her cries. In order to stop the tears from hitting her knees, she pressed her palms to her eyes, in the hopes of muffling the sound.

What was truly frustrating was that no matter how many times she told herself that wiping out the Vun would be justified, a small part of her wondered if what Jorgek said was true. The admonition that her desire was one of vengeance and not just grated on her heart more than the volmont spider grated on the wooden tent beams every morning.

Was she the villain? No. She couldn’t have been. The Vun were out of control. It was said that they took young Xibian children away from their parents to eat them. They didn’t even have love for their own people, as their elders would hunt citizens for sport. Instead of hugging and nourishing their own children, they beat them with rods until they were bruised and bleeding to toughen them up so that they could beat her people. They were truly a civilization without warmth.

And they had took her parents.

The memory of losing her parents clung to Arinthia like a shadow. She had been told by one of the captains that her parents had been found on the plains, both of them riddled with spears. How Arinthia had cried when she had heard the news. An hour before, her parents had been hugging her kissing her, telling her they loved her. They had said they were going out hunting in the field, and that they would be back soon enough. That had been her last memory of them. But how she remembered it!

Arinthia didn’t care what Jorgek said. Her parents, who had loved her with their hearts and soul, who lavished affection on her, unlike those heathen Vun, had to be avenged. And avenge them she would.

She fell asleep that night, cradling her carving of her parents to her breast,  listening to the rhythm of her heartbeat sorrowfully against them.

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Frame of Mind Ch 2

If there was more magic in this painting, then it was Mayor Walpole’s words, as the citizens jumped to them, setting up for the festival in the vineyard.

To start out with, barrels of the best wine were rolled out. Then tables were set up and draped in white cloths with flower petals scattered upon them. Maypoles were erected, booths were set up with games, and stalls put in place with fresh produce and baked bread. Mouthwatering beef was roasted over a fire-pit. While a few people were laughing and drinking; curious to know more about this England that Charlotte came from, most ate their meals gloomily, pretending that she wasn’t there. To them she was a bad penny, a mangy, flea-ridden cat that walks into your house uninvited and plops himself down on your clean bed sheets. While she tried to drown out those who hated her, she could still hear them speaking in harsh rumors behind her back. She was certain that she heard the words “witch,” and “curse” used a couple of times. To those few who were interested, Charlotte would try to find out information about the previous person who entered their world, but they would just brush it aside as if it were of little consequence.

Still, Charlotte was a Fillmore and a Fillmore would not be dissuaded.

“Why don’t you try minding your own business!” said a portly butcher. He was ruddy-faced, with greasy reddish-blond hair to his shoulders, and stubble on his chin. He looked at her with small, beady eyes against a mound of flesh covering his face. His nose was snubbed. As rude as this may be to say, he reminded Charlotte of a pig in an apron.

“Being graced by a stranger is rare, but we count it as a blessing,” he continued, shaking a drumstick, just as greasy as his hair at her. “Adds some seasoning to the stew, if you understand my phrase. Yet even a stew can turn rancid if the ingredients are rotten. ”

“I beg your pardon, but I am afraid I am at a disadvantage, not knowing your name, and I certainly hope that you will pardon any offense,” Charlotte replied, trying to be as graceful as she could.

“I’m the one who prepared the fattened calf for you. Now, eat, drink, and be merry, for the sun must eventually set, and while at it mind your own business.”

Taking his advice, Charlotte helped herself to a chunk of meat, and a slice of bread.

“I didn’t mean to be nosey.”

“But of course you did,” the butcher waved a fat finger at her. “That’s the problem with this town. Too many chickens pecking at each other’s feet instead of for their own food! They want to know everyone’s business. I’m trapped in this loathsome world. How I dream of a much bigger world!”

“That’s enough out of you, Jasper!” Walpole intervened.

The butcher walked away in a huff.

“Pay no attention to him,” said a young lady about Charlotte’s age. “Jasper has always been the disagreeable sort. We joke that he butchers happiness as much as meat.”

“Who might you be?” asked Charlotte.

“Elaine” she said, brushing a hand through her curly red hair. “Anyway, don’t mind him. He’s full of hot air.”

“I have no idea what I did wrong,” Charlotte was perplexed. “Some were inquiring about England and I answered as best I could. What made it improper to ask about the previous resident in turn? Also, am I really that loathed by the others?”

“You did nothing wrong. It’s just a rather sore spot, don’t you know. What happened was a wound inflicted upon our world, but I promise you that no harm will befall you.”

“That’s good,” Charlotte breathed a sigh of relief. “What happened to the previous person?”

Elaine sighed. “The last person who came here, claiming to have come by way of painting, snuffed out his flame.”

“You mean?”

“Yes. He killed himself.”

Charlotte felt the festivities darken even further.

“Come,” she said, taking Charlotte by the arm. “A group of us are going to dance around the maypole. Do join us.”

This request ushered Charlotte into a circle of young men and woman, hand in hand, dancing while musicians played fiddles and flutes as she was exchanged, arm hooked to arm, from one young man to another. The men, practically in every sense of the word, swept her off her feet. Though, many more that distrusted her stood aside.

Around midnight the celebration came to an end.  Most people had departed, but Elaine, and another youth by the name of Henri, remained by her side.

“Someone else coming here from a painting,” said Henri. “I would never have thought.”

Charlotte was more than happy to tell the pair of them as much as she could. She told them how large her world was, the different countries and nationalities, and its history. They listened intently, swallowing every word she had to say. It wasn’t hard to understand why. When Charlotte asked them about their world, she found out that what she saw was all there was. There was nothing beyond the mountains, the field, or the sea, but a barrier. These, including the woods and the town, were the only things they knew.

“But that must be frightfully dull!” exclaimed Charlotte. “How can one live such an existence?”

No sooner had she said this she berated herself for being rude.

“It’s all we know,” shrugged Elaine.

“Quite right,” said Henri. “But William, the previous resident, felt just the same way you do, the one who” – His sentence was interrupted by Elaine stepping on his foot.

“What happened to him? I know he killed himself, but whatever for?”

Henri returned a stern look back at Elaine. “It would be foolhardy to even think of concealing it. The cat’s out of the bag, and she’ll find out eventually, even if I don’t tell her.”

He looked at Charlotte sadly. “I’m afraid you can’t leave this land.”

“Can’t leave! But my parents” –

“Will never see you again,” continued Elaine in tears.

“No!” Charlotte got up and tried to run from the pain of what she just heard.

“Wait!” Elaine tried to grab her.

But it was no use. No words could comfort Charlotte, and reason wouldn’t work, which was now a poison rather than a balm.

She ran across the field back to where she entered from, only to see a black wall from the night sky. Furiously she pounded upon it, hoping it would shatter. It didn’t, but her parents’ voices came through.

“Now, now, don’t cry, dear,” her father was comforting her mother.

“It’s all my fault,” wept Mrs. Fillmore, “for trying to force her into something she wanted no part of.”

“Now dear, you can’t blame yourself. All we can do is keep a stiff upper lip and hope for the best. I have the constable and everyone else in town searching for her.”

“Oh if she were here right now, how I would cradle her in my arms and tell her I love her!”

“As would I, my dear, as would I.”

“Mother! Father!” yelled Charlotte as loud as she could. “I’m here! Please don’t leave me!”

There was no answer, as their voices faded out of earshot. When Charlotte’s voice was near mute, and her hands sore, she sunk down against the barrier and wailed profusely.

No! This couldn’t be it! But running to the east and to the west only greeted her with that same blasted barrier. There was only one thing left to do, run north to the sea and hope that the barrier would give way there.

Waves pushed her back as she swam against the current. She wasn’t sure how far she swam out. In her desperation, tired arms could not keep her from swimming, but a solid wall could. She mustered as much strength as she could trying to break the barrier, but it wouldn’t give way. But she did. Drained of strength, the waves pushed her back to shore.

Wet and disheveled, she felt very isolated and claustrophobic. If the wall couldn’t shatter, her heart could. She was stuck now. Stuck in a world in which the majority of people hated her.

She was asleep when Henri and Elaine found her.

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The Uncomfortable Heights of being a Writer

The big wheel can climb however high, but it inevitably returns to its starting point.
-Bubbles & Gondola by Renaud Dillies

Just sit down at the computer (or the typewriter) and type out your story or article. It sounds simple enough. But if that’s the case, why can it be so hard to be motivated? On the surface, it would appear that the problem is laziness. At least that’s what I used to think my problem was. I’d rather be reading other books, binge-watching a TV show, playing video games, or napping with my pets. And for a long time, I blamed my lack of writing on my being slothful. But as time went on, I wondered if it was something more. What if it was fear?

But fear to write? How absurd is that? Maybe not as absurd as I was once imagined, and a French graphic novel helped reinforce my view.

 

Bubble & Gondola 

Renaud Dillies’s graphic novel Bubbles &  Gondola really helped put my thoughts into perspective. *Warning: Mild Spoilers Ahead* 

Bubbles & Gondola

Bubbles & Gondola by Renaud Dillies. Published by ComicsLit.

The book opens with the portayel of being as writer as the greatest thing ever. Charlie the Mouse loves being a writer and having his own schedule. However, underneath all that supposed freedom lurks his fears of writing that chain him. This is aptly illustrated when he comes across a towering Ferris Wheel. The ride operator, a jovial stork, offers Charlie a free ride; in fact he insists, pushing the poor little mouse into one of the gondolas before he can protest.

While on the ride, Charlie ruminates how he has vertigo from the heights. Appearing before him is a little blue-bird who asks him if he’s taken the time to appreciate the view. When Charlie says no, he eventually tells him that “You want to write, but your ideas are a big wheel turning upon itself,” and adding “You’re afraid of writing because you suffer from vertigo.” Wow! Did that hit close to home for me.

 

Suffering from Writer’s Vertigo

Like Charlie, the mouse and the main character in Bubbles & Gondola, I suffer from writer’s vertigo. From article to blog posts to novels and short stories, it feels like I have too much to do at times. It’s dizzying. And while Bubbles & Gondola doesn’t portray that being a problem for Charlie, it does show that he has a problem getting motivated, something I have problems with.

It would be  hard enough if I had problems getting motivated solely because of the amount of projects I had to tackle, seeing as this will sometimes immobilize me because I don’t know what to start on first, but I also have to deal with fears whether my writing is good enough. This imposter syndrome ways down on me, making me doubt my writing abilities and my accomplishments. It’s acted as a blockade, preventing me from just writing a novel or short story.

So, like Charlie, sometimes I find myself wasting time around the house, because I can’t deal with the dizzying vertigo of so many projects at once, or I lack of faith in my writing abilities.

 

And yet, we all have to step out of our comfort zones. This applies to writers and non-writers alike, as we put one foot forward each day. Writing isn’t comfortable. I wish it was. Rewarding? Yes. But more often than not it can be thankless. Though many people may not thank us, we can at least thank ourselves for pushing forward and overcoming our fear of writers heights.

Frame of Mind Ch 1: rough draft

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Baber’s Farm. Image by Arthur Hopper. Wikimedia Commons.

 

“Do hurry up, Charlotte,” said her mother hotly. “We’re going to be late.”

It was a hectic morning in the Fillmore household. Thirteen year old Charlotte was supposed to have already been dressed in her Sunday best, out waiting by the carriage to be taken to Lord Digory’s estate in order to have lunch with his son Bryan. But she was far from ready, instead having a lazy morning at the country manor, away from the smog of the industrialized cities and the busy streets of horse-hooves clattering, and she planned to keep it that way.

All this nonsense of Bryan as a romantic interest was too much to bear. Better off kissing a warty toad than a spoiled brat.

“Spare the rod, spoil the child, just as the good book says,” mumbled Ms. McDougal, the family maid, in her thick Scottish accent, as she dusted off the bookshelf.

“My dear Ms. McDougal,” replied Charlotte rather casually, with just a hint of flippancy, “do you not suppose that it’s possible to overbeat a child with a rod?”

“Aye,” Ms. McDougal was sweeping up the last bit of dust. “But in your case a few more lashings might do you some good.”

“I suppose.”

“Come now, sweet. You know your parents only have the best of intentions for you. Bryan Digory is a fine young man, but the both of you are only thirteen. They don’t expect you two to be sealed in holy matrimony for a few more years.”

Fine young man! There was a laugh! Digory was fine and dandy if you liked a simpering little boy in the body of a teenager. Needless to say, Charlotte did not.

“And until then am I to dread those years?”

“Dread? Of course not!” exclaimed her mother. “You put yourself in your own cage, Charlotte. There is a world of hills full of butterflies, of boating, and sipping tea by the Thames, but you live in a dungeon of your own making. The train will be leaving for London soon, and you aren’t even ready to take the carriage to Brighton Station.”

“Brighton is so far away,” said Charlotte. “I think it would be much better if I bide my time here. The countryside is positively lovely, and the air so fresh.”

It would have been counterproductive to put the hot flame of a candle against Charlotte’s flesh. Good luck burning her with that. Her mother, on the other hand, was a different story. Charlotte could feel the hot gaze of her mother’s eyes burning into her. Why couldn’t the old biddy just leave her alone? She wasn’t interested in a spoiled brat like Bryan. She could care less that the boy’s father was a successful merchant in the East India Company. Nor did she care that he had propitiated large sums of money. The Digorys were still dolts.

The memory of their first meeting was fresh in her mind. Charlotte’s mother had taken her to meet them over in Stratford-upon-Avon a couple years back at the Church of the Holy Trinity. It was all a façade concocted by Lord Digory to try and dupe the Fillmores into thinking that his family was of firm faith. But it didn’t take much to see past the pious masks into the reality of their pretentiousness just by the little ways they treated those around them. When they had gone to their household, Charlotte had been shocked to see how Bryan ordered the servants about. Sure, the Digorys were cordial to her and her family, but the Fillmore’s were well off. If you were of a noble class the Digorys would love you. If not they would despise you. They may have had her parents fooled, but not Charlotte.

What was even more intolerable than young Bryan was his father Lord Digory. For not only did he have stock in the East India Company, but he owned textile mills and other factories. That would be fine and jolly-well good, except that many of his employees were children, working to the bone to bring home a meager living to their parents. A few had even died in his factories. Of course, he never blamed himself. Far be it for he, a proper British gentleman, to think he committed any sin. After all, according to his magnanimous nature, he was giving the children income, keeping them off the streets, and teaching them all about thrift. It made Charlotte sick.

Charlotte tried to reason all of this with her parents, but they were never much for reason.

“Be that as it may, you simply cannot stay here, child,” said Mrs. Fillmore, proving Charlotte’s point. “Do you want to me to tell your father that you are being disobedient?”

Normally these words were enough to chill Charlotte. It wasn’t that her father was an unreasonable tyrant. On the contrary. Red-faced jovial and with a deep booming laugh, a salt of the earth, that was her father. Look in the dictionary under the word fair and there would be an engraving of him, but even he had his limits. Children being disobedient to their mothers was one of them. Yet, this time around Charlotte found herself not caring if she angered him or her mother.

“I hope we are late,” she retorted.

“Charlotte” gasped her mother. “Mind your manners. What would your father say if he were here?”

“He would more than likely send me to bed without supper,” sulked Charlotte. “You two are so unreasonable.”

“Young lady, your tongue wags too freely. Perhaps we should just leave you be and not bother you anymore.”

“I daresay sometime I wish you would. You’re like a crowing rooster, never giving me a moments rest. I wish I could just escape from this family forever.”

Next, it was Ms. McDougal’s turn to grow angry. A brick of a woman, one would think they were facing against a raging bull with her. Sadly for the maid, Charlotte was feeling like brick wall.

“Charlotte, your impertinence towards your own flesh and blood is unbecoming of a child.”

“Oh, I beg your forgiveness,” said Charlotte sarcastically. “Do tell, what sort of impertinence is becoming of a child?”

“Now you see here,” the maid towered above her.

“Oh, I see a lot. I see a washed up maid who is blocking my view of the window.”

“Charlotte!” exclaimed her mother.

“I will not be a pawn in you and father’s games. Though, I’m sure Ms. McDougal doesn’t mind. You might have to find a chess board to fit a lady of her girth on, I dare say.”

Shaming an older woman for her weight, particularly one who often acted like a grandma to Charlotte, was bad form, indeed. But Charlotte wasn’t concerned with form. She only wanted to be left alone.

On that note, her mother and the maid, equally shocked, left Charlotte to herself in the study. Not a word of ‘we’ll talk later, dear’ or ‘wait until your father hears of this.’ It was a silence worse than a parting word, a silence Charlotte tried not to let bother her.

Charlotte stretched across the couch, yawning, like a great big cat. It was nice to have some respite from all the needless nagging. Of course she was overreacting. This marriage was only arranged in words, not common law. She could marry whomever she wanted to when the time came. This wasn’t like the stories she had heard of about India in which arranged marriage was the status quo.

While lounging about, her eyes scanned the study past the bookshelves, the marble busts, past the grand piano with the ivory keys (those poor elephants), past the fireplace carved of marble (all the marble was overkill), until her eyes fell onto her favorite painting, and for good reason, too. It was painted with a godly touch. The field of grass slopped downward, dotted by oaks and elms, in which a dirt trail ran through it. A river cut through the trail with a quaint stone bridge arching over it. In the backdrop was a set of snowy mountains. By the side of the mountains was a town, and behind the town was the sea. In front of the town were some pastures teaming with cows. The painting had something magical about it, as though it was real.

“I wish I could walk into that painting,” Charlotte whispered to herself. “How I wish I could just escape this family and never come back! I would be positively chuffed if I could just leave this blooming world behind without my parents ever bothering me again, away from elitists like the Digorys, away from the factories in which children work until they die only because they aren’t rich. I want to forsake it all forever.”

Taking a closer look at the painting, she saw that the very water seemed to rush as branches from the trees bowed to the wind. Grass popped, trying to leave the confines of their frame. In a hypnotic sense of wonder, Charlotte slowly made her way to the painting, entranced by the strange magic it was working on her. Her senses wrapped in the moment, she breathed in the fresh air of a landscape never defiled by factories. A breeze rippled her hair.

She looked around her, amazed at what had happened. She was in the painting. Birds chirped in the trees around her. Taking off her sandals, she felt the grass beneath her feet. Over the bridge, across the river, the village beckoned to her. She was in a whole new territory. Who else could say that they had stepped into a painting?

Charlotte ran through the grass, and, as nice as that felt, she could only imagine sledding down the slopes of that pristine mountain. Crossing the stone bridge, she looked over it into the water to see fish swimming about.

Oh the sweet freedom! For the time being she was away from her demanding parents. Why, it was all so beautiful that Charlotte again wished never to leave. Factories? Not one! She wasn’t sure how she knew – it wasn’t like she had gone in the opposite directions to find out – but somehow she just knew. The worst smell was the sheep and cow pens nearby. Better yet, there was no child labor and no Digorys.

The smell of animal pens gave way, pushed aside by the smell of fresh bread baking from the ovens of the cottages. No sooner had she smelt the aroma had she stepped onto a paved road. Though the full-scope of the village was hard to grasp just by a painting alone, now that Charlotte was smack dab in the middle of it, she could see that it was comprised of comfortable little shops, quaint outdoor cafes with vines growing across the walls, small but elegant manors with vineyards and wineries, and white plaster cottages.

The townspeople looked at her. Charlotte wondered if she had food on her face leftover from breakfast. But then she laughed at herself. Obviously she was a stranger so they would stare.

“Top of the morning to you all,” said Charlotte cheerfully. “Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Charlotte Fillmore.”

Her greeting was reciprocated by whispers around her. Though she didn’t perceive any danger from anyone, it was understandably a bit unnerving.

“What are you doing here?” snapped an older woman. “Have you come to turn into a stink in our town?”

“A stink?” Charlotte was taken back.

“Yes, like the last stranger,” scoffed another.

“What is you want?” asked a child, equally hostile as the adults.

“I don’t want anything,” said Charlotte. “Except to see your town.”

“That’s the biggest lie I’ve ever heard,” proclaimed another.

Finally, a man of important character made his way towards her, took off his stove-top hat and bowed. “Good evening, Ms.” he said kindly. “My name is Joseph Walpole, the mayor of the town.” Behind his flabby face, his bulbous nose, and thick black mustache were kind eyes that put Charlotte at ease.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Mayor,” said Charlotte. “I didn’t mean to alarm anyone.”

“Not at all. We just aren’t used to strangers. And please address me as Mayor.”

“Oh? Not many strangers come here?”

“Not often. That’s why people were nervous about you. We don’t want what happened before to happen again.”

“Why? What happened before?”

Walpole grew pale. “It’s nothing,” he quickly composed himself. “What’s wonderful is that another person, one of flesh and blood came here.”

“Flesh and blood?” Charlotte was confused. “I thought you were all painted by a brush.”

“Blimey! Is that where we came from?” jokingly quipped another man.

“You mean you don’t know?” asked Charlotte. “I take it none of you came from a woman?”

“Well, of course we came from a woman,” said an older woman. “Where else would we come from? We just don’t know who the first man and woman were.”

“Then however did you all come here?” It was a silly question. How else would have they come here except by a painter’s brush? Obviously they didn’t jump into the painting like she did. Or did they? Did they have no concept of God, or of Adam and Eve? It was a wonder, and what was the expression? Will wonders never cease?

“We don’t know,” said Walpole, “if you’re referring how we came to be here to begin with. Now where did you say you’re from?”

“I didn’t say. But I’m from England.”

“England!”

“I came here through a painting.”

“A painting of us?” asked a slender lady, who looked about the Mayor’s age.

“Ah, allow me to introduce you to my wife,” beamed Walpole.

“A pleasure,” said Charlotte before continuing on. “In a sense, but not really. It was a painting of this ocean, this town, this mountain, this field. My eyes couldn’t detect any of you, though.”

“Did not someone else claim to come through a painting?” asked another resident.

“Yes, but suffice to say he’s no longer among us.”

“Why? What happened?” asked Charlotte, growing more curious as to who this person was.

“Now, young lady, be a dear and think nothing of it.” The Mayor turned to the crowd. “We have a guest with us. Let’s all make her feel welcome.”

“We would all feel a lot more welcome if we could make just make her go home,” said another resident.

The crowd began to grow more restless, and for a moment Charlotte wondered if she’d have a mob on her hands.

“That’s enough!” proclaimed the Mayor in a booming voice. “Tonight is a night of celebration, not condemnation.”

Celebration! The very words trickled out of the Mayor’s mouth. Little did Charlotte know, there was more magic, as well as terrors unforeseen terrors to come, but such is life.

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Wings to Carry Us Prologue: rough draft

 

1200px-DuffusCastle

Image: DuffusCastle. By Kourous. Wikimedia Commons.

 

Ereterus was hot and tired when he came to a large pair of ruins jutting out from a hill in the Plains of Van Durgle. Cracked, aged, and worn, the decrepit structure was the remnant of an old fort, and by the looks of the stag insignia above the partly open rusted portcullis, it had been in use by the Horfifin dynasty, who had long wiped out the vassal states, the smaller kingdoms that paid homage to the Austentoff dynasty. Ereterus knew history well. The Horfifin dynasty had overthrown and taken many of the smaller kingdoms from the Austentoff, claiming them as their own. The Austentoff dynasty had never forgiven them for it, and the unbridle malice that had time to stew and boil under the flames of hundreds and hundreds of years in resentment within the cauldron of time would be the Horfifin dynasty’s undoing, to a certain extent. Not that it mattered. In the long run King Horfifin’s XXXXVI wouldn’t have been able to withstand the even greater onslaught that ravaged the land a couple years later. It’s why hardly anyone lived on the ground anymore.

The tower, ancient and weathered, still exuded a feeling of strength, as if the spirit of the builders from ages past had put all their blood and ingenuity into it. In a sense, the spirits of the old builders still lived within these walls. Ereterus could feel it.

Ereterus took a look at the plain around him. From north to west, to east to south, the Plains of Van Durgle stretched like an undulating ocean, the grass bowing to the light breeze. The ruins wouldn’t be the safest place to camp (very little places at ground level were), but it would certainly be better than his prior nights of camping out in the open. It was only midday, but Ereterus didn’t care. He had been walking long hours for the past couple of months. He had been walking long hours for most of his life. Only rarely did he come across shelter that he could take refuge in. Normally he walked until 1 AM, only to get up at 7 AM. When he occasionally found a structure, which was rare, he would take advantage of his good fortune.

How he would have loved to have rested more. But time didn’t afford him the luxury. He had seen the vision from the oracle back in in Ipais. It wasn’t a vision set in stone, but a couple of visions that broke into two roads, one pleasant, one sinister, of what could be. There were two outcomes, a dead world, or reborn world of light and knowledge.

This knowledge that he carried was a burden. Ereterus knew that if he told anyone what he knew that they would kill him. The Ipains didn’t look kindly on what they considered blasphemy. If he dared share what the oracle had showed him, they would call him and the oracle a liar, giving them a prolonged death. Silence wasn’t always golden. It was more than that. It was the breath of life. Still, the knowledge he carried weighed heavier than the pack on his back, and he longed for the day that he wouldn’t have to keep it secret. Until then, there was nothing he could do. Eventually the time would come, he hoped, that all would be made known unto civilization.

He walked through the old portcullis and under the keep. Swords, spears, axes, and all other manner of weaponry were still nicely placed in the rack, despite the last ground war. In fact, there was little devastation inside the keep. The throne was still there, although the plush seating was spotted with mildew and the bronze frame had grown dull. Above the throne, the Horfifin coat of arms had been removed, obviously by the nobles who had still claimed allegiance to Austentoff. But the large round table for war meetings still stood in the middle and the tapestries, though a bit worn and moth eaten, still hung on the walls. Enough light was coming in from the slits for windows that Ereterus could see that there were a few blood stains on the table from the last scuffle as well as tears in the tapestries from swords. But overall it appeared that the dukes who had rebelled wanted this fortification to remain in the best condition possible so that they could make use of it. Remembering his history, Ereterus knew that the nobles weren’t that gracious with everything that Horfifin XXXVI owned. They and the rival Austentoff dynasty had laid utter waste to the magnificent marble brick and gold tiled Horfifin palace without mercy.

Ereterus shook his head. They needn’t had bothered. The upcoming dragon, dire wolf, or ogre attacks would have done all that hard work in a fraction of the time for the dukes and the kingdom of Austentoff. But what was done was done, and it wasn’t like Ereterus had anything to do with it; the events having transpired long before he was born.

Resuming his exploration of the structure, he walked up the stone steps that wound up to the top floor. At the top was a large oaken door, almost eaten away by termites. Ereterus gently pushed the door open, only to have it break into a pile of kindling, with the rusty door hinges just barely hanging onto the door frame.

He stepped into the chamber to find an old bed, the mattress and bedding partly eaten away by moths. Aside from the bed and a few tapestries on the wall, there wasn’t much left in the chamber, except for a small writing desk under an arrow slit, which, Ereterus found out, was strangely in better condition than the door had been.

He opened one of the upper drawers of the desk and found a parchment inside it, brittle but still readable. Ereterus had always loved reading old parchments and journals. They were windows back into the past, one that he could hardly understand, but one that he hoped to get a gleam some understanding, if only a little, from the written records of those who came before him. From this parchment, Ereterus learned that the commander stressed great value on horsemanship. Horsemanship! What a concept! In this age horses ran wild. Ereterus gently placed the parchment back in the drawer, closed it and opened another drawer only to find nothing.

He walked back down the stairs and out into the ward. From here he got a good look at the surrounding turrets. They had taken the most damage during the siege. Some had huge chunks blown out of their sides, others were missing their turrets. A particular large gash, wide at the top and narrowed as it slithered down, was in the north wall, opposite of the keep. This section had taken huge catapult damage.

What Ereterus really wanted to find was the dungeon. Though not the most comfortable place to sleep, it would offer him the most protection from ogres, dire wolves, and dragons. This was small comfort. Dragons and dire wolves could and did dig if they sensed a buried life form, and ogres were known to topple buildings for fun, trapping the poor, unfortunate soul who was unlucky enough to be buried under the rubble, but every little bit of protection helped.

Looking back on his month long journey across the plains, Ereterus was surprised that he hadn’t been picked off by one of these monsters. They were always on the hunt, and the plains offered little to no protection. He had encountered one ogre a couple of months ago, a lumbering beast as large as a small mountain, rock-like in nature with huge jagged plates of armor for skin, and knots of stone-like growth protruding like spikes from his back.

There had been no ruins on the open plains. No place to hide. No place except for the tall grass in the hopes that the ogre wouldn’t see him. Ereterus was lucky that ogres, unlike dragons don’t have a sense in which they can detect body heat, or the smell of a dire wolf. By nature, ogres are dumb and slow creatures, but they find simple pleasures, and there was no guarantee that the oaf wouldn’t still step on him by changing direction, or lie down and roll around in the grass.

Ereterus hadn’t remembered a time he had been so frightened in all his life. He counted it as a blessing and as proof of his divine mission when the ogre passed him by, finger up his nose as he lagged his clumsy feet behind him.

Tummy rumbling, Ereterus was reminded that he hadn’t eaten since yesterday morning. Finding a dislodged stone to sit on, he removed his cloak, took off his hat, and removed his knapsack to take out a piece of cheese and bread that he had stolen from one of those flying traders that often made their way to Ipais for trade. In this case, the trader had landed to make some minor repairs to his flying machine.

The food had looked tasty and Ereterus would have gladly paid for it if he had money to do so. He had gotten partly lucky with the trader. In this case Ereterus had offered to help him, hoping that he wouldn’t have to steal, but the trader had only scorned him as a stupid earth dweller. And so when the trader was deeply absorbed in his repairs, Ereterus stole some bread and a wheel of cheese from his table. Stolen or rightly earned, when one was starving it didn’t matter. It tasted good either way.

Ereterus drank from his flask, dislodging a piece of dry bread caught in the back of his throat. He breathed deeply, feeling the breeze lightly caress him under the warm sun. It was strange to think that small moments like this were moments of deep joy. But in living a life of constant movement, always trying to survive, in the hopes of finding an answer to the world’s problems, moments like this were a joy.

After eating, he fell into the grass. It was soft and flowers were all around him. Yellow flowers like the noonday sun, flowers as blue as the early morning, flowers as white as snow, flowers as red as velvet, wildflowers abounding in what was once a training ground. From his right ear, he heard some quiet chirping. He turned his head to his side to see a little field mouse harvesting little seeds from the flowers. The mouse scurried off to his den somewhere. Ereterus looked back up at the sky. The clouds were extra puffy today, billowing like sails unfurled as they sailed across the ocean of the firmament.

Ereterus yawned. He wanted to fall asleep in this peaceful ward, among the beautiful flowers, under the tranquil sky. But he knew that was a death wish. The sky could easily turn into a nightmare with the huge monsters roaming about. Certainly he had risked much in the past weeks, such as his encounter with the ogre, but that was because he had no shelter. When shelter was provided one took it.

Getting up he stretched before putting his cloak and hat back on, strapping his pack back to his back, and grabbing his knapsack. He walked along the walls of the fortress until he came across a set of stairs leading down. Either it lead to the cellar or the dungeon. Regardless, he had found it just in the nick of time. For a shadow fell over him. Flying high above him, wings outstretched to block out the clouds, was a dragon. Without hesitation, Ereterus ran down the stairs before the dragon could either burn him to a cinder or eat him raw.

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Cold Shades Ch 2: Revised and Expanded Rough Draft

Suggested for ages 18 and up for harsh violence, strong language, sexual themes and rape, and drug abuse. 

It had been a week since Becca visited her brother and she was still saddened over the whole ordeal. Though he was difficult, she still loved him. But there wasn’t anything she could do for him. She wished that an employer would give Harold a second chance, but she knew that she was asking the nearly impossible. What he said about no one hiring him was true, even though he could speak numerous languages. What was the point of that if anyone from around the world, Chinese, Spanish, German, and so forth could have their languages translated in her chip, as though they were speaking English! Even if the former wasn’t an issue, the vast majority of employers didn’t want to take the time to see a potential employee, hence they had computers do it. She wondered if it was because they were afraid. Becca couldn’t say so for certain but it would make sense. After all, if a potential employer was forced to look her brother in the eyes, seeing his hardships and his struggles, would such an employer be willing to give him a chance? Furthermore, despite all of the technology, would more people, even if only a few more, have jobs if there were less computers to conduct the interview process?

Computer interviews were so convenient for employers. Harold was certainly a victim of the system that didn’t give any leeway or room for extenuating circumstances, or complex reasons for why someone did what they did, or why they lacked experience but could gain it. There was no room for bargaining, no room for understanding.

Then again, she shouldn’t feel too sorry for Harold. Her mother had left them behind enough of a will that even someone like Becca’s brother was comfortably provided for. True, housing prices had risen since their mother had passed. But at least Harold had a small home. That was more than could be said for most. Downtown there were those housed in govern-mental so-called improved housing, families and individuals living and sharing the space in barely maintained buildings.

Becca tried to stop thinking about it. The situation was just too painful. Instead, she redirected her thoughts to the day at hand. She had work to do. Her clients had been sending her more angry messages than usual. That was bad enough, but it was unbearable to think that her chip was set on the same frequency as Cinema Palace’s, meaning that if the president and vice president wanted to read her v-mails they could, considering any customer complaint was a complaint against the whole company. It would have been no hard task for them to tap into the messages running to her chip anytime they liked. Not many were employed at Cinema Palace, only a handful of them and Becca was lucky (if she could be called lucky) to be employed. To save money, there weren’t any other supervisors over the few employees except for the two presidents. When Becca was giving written warnings about her falling short on the job, and she had been a couple of times, it was by the heads of the company.

She was already on thin ice enough with them.

After she had gotten back from visiting Harold yesterday, she had gotten into a particularly volatile argument with a customer. This customer was so irate that she had paid extra to send a holographic image of herself into Becca’s home to berate her. She had waited, waited like a tiger hiding in the foliage, until Becca was back home so she could pounce on her. The chip wouldn’t play a hologram unless Becca was near her computer. She hoped it would stay that way.

With the stress of Harold already weighing on her, Becca had lost her cool and cussed out the customer before ordering her chip to block the hologram. Two hours later, she had received a message from one of the heads, Vice President Robert Johnson, which notified her that a customer had complained about her conduct (gee, she wondered who, sarcastically), followed by a stern warning that blocking cliental was against company policy and that continuing to ignore policy would result in her termination. Becca had quickly responded, even going so far as to pay ten digifunds each, twenty-five in total because of tax, to send a hologram of herself over to both the customer she had slighted and her employers. Because of this, she had a little less digifunds in her account. Yesterday had easily been one of her worst workdays.

Becca cursed. Those bastards at Big Bytes could charge whatever they wanted for through holographic calls though their Insite Chips, and the heads of Cinema Palace made use of it by having their employees send a human hologram instead of a normal v-mail when they dishonored the company, and there was nothing Becca could do about it. Work was so scarce, and Cinema Palace was just a few of the many companies left owned by 4evRPlay. Screw them!

Even if she did try applying with a company under the thumb of another corporation, say Hippocare, Cornucopia, Elain June, or Bigbytes, it wouldn’t make a damn bit of difference if 4evRPlay fired her. She would become a pariah to all the big five corporations. And finding a job at an independent store would be a challenge in and of itself. She liked to think that she could look for another job now, but she knew that wasn’t possible. Her low-performance rating was transferred to the computers of all the corporations and the companies under them. In order to find another job, she would have to raise her approval rating first.

There were times that the Insite Chip didn’t make life easier, no matter what the commercials said. Job performance ratings stored on the chips were a good example.

She needed to relax. She could have fallen asleep and played a virtual game, but she hated virtual games. They were just absolute time wasters. No, she’d stay awake and watch another movie, a documentary.

Out from her small computer and touching the signal of her chip, a digital finger touching another digital finger, birthing an image of a crowd of people. It never ceased to amaze Becca. Never in reality had she seen so many people gathered together. Women wearing lose flowing, flowery skirts or harem skirts, men in tie dye t-shirts and ragged jeans, some of them from both genders wearing suede hats, brightly colored bandanas, and woven cotton hats. Some with shades on their eyes. People packed together, some unwashed, some with dreads for hair, all around a stage were psychedelic music wafted in the air. And while these unkempt, unwashed individuals sat on blankets enjoying the festival, Becca was enjoying it on her chair.

Come to think of it, why was she sitting on her chair? She had always wanted to experience Woodstock 69 the way the hippies did. Granted, she couldn’t sit on actual dirt or in actual mud, but she could have a feeling by sitting on the floor.

Becca sat on the floor just as the narrator began to narrate the picture, giving a history of the life at Woodstock. It was a brilliant documentary, cobbled together from archived video from 1969, reprogrammed to into a hologram.

It was one of Becca’s favorite documentaries. She had watched it so much that she knew what the narrator would say next, as if his words were chiseled into her brain and escribed onto her heart.

And yet the documentary never got old. WoodStock 69: A Remembrance, was a wonderland, a window back into time, yanking the past into the present, giving it fresh breath and new life, where the shades of colorful bohemian misfits could run, frolic, and play.

“My damn movie’s not working!” The voice broke the tranquility of the scene. Though not asleep, it shook Becca out of the lovely dream she had been immersed in.

Pausing the documentary, leaving a ghostly image of the past frozen in her living room, she gently asked, “I’m sorry, Sir. What’s the problem?”

Not only did he tell her the problem, but for thirty minutes he nearly chewed her ear off, pontificating everything wrong with Cinema Palace, how shoddy the service was. Becca profusely apologized while trying to make the situation right, all the while knowing that if she lost her temper she might as well write a goodbye note to her employers.

When it was all over, she tried to watch the movie again. But she couldn’t get into it. What if he called back?

She needed a drink. She poured herself some lite beer from the fridge. Too damn lite! She took out a normal beer and drank deeply from the can, savoring the bitter flavor that was like piss. She took one of her pills to calm her nerves.

She wanted to reach out and talk tom someone, to confide, and she didn’t want that someone to be Harold.

What had happened to her? Back in the day she had friends. Of course, they were friends she had met through her parents. By the time she was born, school was an archaic notion of the past. Becca had never known what a real teacher was like. Hers had not been one of flesh and blood but a virtual one. She was lucky though to have grown up in a time when virtual teachers hit the scene. During the day, Becca’s teacher, Mr. Driaza had taught her in holographic form. Nighttime lessons, when her mother had wished them, would then occasionally be given at night in Becca’s dreams, but in a subtle way in which Becca had never noticed she was dreaming about a lesson. With such a flexible schedule and programmed to know every subject from time tables, arithmetic, English, biology, to ecology; hell, the virtual teachers could do it all. A normal teacher couldn’t compete. In other words, there hadn’t been any physical buildings of learning for Becca to make friends in.

She had met her friends at dinner parties at her parent’s house, or at the homes of her parent’s friends. But strangely she had fallen out of touch with them, and no longer did she have their numbers saved within her Insight Chip. Using the chip, she could reactivate names of her friends, but that would cost money and she was too nervous about how awkward it would be if reached out to them after ten years of not speaking to them. What would she say? Better to find new friends.

She did have that date with Ted to look forward to. At least she hoped she did. Much to Becca’s frustration, she hadn’t been able to reach him. Whenever she tried calling him on his chip, his number was always busy. Talk about rude! Here she was pining for some meaningful human contact, and he wouldn’t even call back when she left a message on his chip. What was Ted doing? Making out with one of his jet cars? With the way he talked about them he may as well have been.

Or maybe he was intentionally avoiding her. Maybe he thought she was ugly. Becca gulped. She had been called ugly once. Well, not just once but numerous times. Not all the kids that her parents introduced her to thought she was pretty. Most didn’t. Some thought she was as homely as a rat and as skinny as a stick. Even her friends hadn’t thought she was much of a looker. As she grew up, her mom not once told her that she was blossoming into a beautiful rose. Becca felt like a weed then. She felt like a weed now.

Was that what was going on now? Did Ted actually think she was ugly? She took another drink of beer, and thought of going to the medicine cabinet to pop some more pills. The stress was killing her, wondering if she would die in this house alone. Her thoughts went back to her mother who had been alone when she was dying, except for Harold.

Heck, even Becca’s dad had been alone when he died. Alone except for some sex androids to pleasure him. It was all he had left, that and his drinking, after her mom had divorced him. He had been a cruel husband and a loafer of a father. He had drinking problems and refused to have a job, even though Sunset Harvest, a fruit and grain company, under the arm of Cornucopia Inc. had offered him a job.

“Damn, you’re ugly, just like your mom,” he had often told Becca.

One night he had grown so angry at both she and Harold for playing noisily at night that he had given them both a beating before telling them that there were always v-games to play that could keep the noise level down. He never liked the idea of her and her brother chasing each other around the house in a game of hide and seek or making box forts. This was hard because Becca had never liked v-games. There was something she felt that was so powerful about her own imagination that she preferred it over the digital realm of v-games. Her old man had never agreed.

In time, her mom had kicked him out. Not that it mattered. When it came to finances, Becca’s mom had kept most of the money. Her mom had been a prestigious lawyer (one of the few jobs that weren’t taken over by machines, at least not yet) who had commanded a lot of respect. She had earned good money from defending rich clients who got themselves into trouble, and since lawyers were a bit more sparse, her mom was able to charge high prices for her legal services.

To this day, Becca didn’t know how her mom fell for him. Her mom had said that it was his initial charm. If he once had charm, Becca never saw it. Regardless, when her father had once beat sixteen year old Harold nearly to death in a violent rage that was the last straw. Her mom had given him an ultimatum. Leave peacefully or she would call the police, and in Becca’s world the police, being fully functional androids with tough exteriors and heavy weaponry, were no laughing matter. Her old man, having a fear of the cops, as he called them, obliged her mom and took the little bit of money she had provided him to live in a dingy apartment with nothing but an old, rusty pair of sex bots to please him, and plenty of alcohol. He had died of alcohol poisoning later on, found attached, as it were, to a sex bot.

Not that it mattered. When it came to finances, Becca’s mom had kept most of the money. Her mom had been a prestigious lawyer (one of the few jobs that weren’t taken over by machines, at least not yet) who had commanded a lot of respect. She had earned good money from defending rich clients who got themselves into trouble, and since lawyers were a bit more sparse, her mom was able to charge high prices for her legal services.

Becca wished she could have said that life with her mom had been better. But it hadn’t. Though her mom didn’t ever beat her, she still gave her and her brother a tongue lashing. Her words could often be harsher than her dad’s; a sad, old man who died lonely. What was truly tragic was that her mother’s harsh words, such as calling Becca “skinny as a stick,” or saying that she was “plain-faced and dull,” was much better than when she flat out ignored her. Becca got the feeling that her mother had never wanted to be a mother to begin with, and as such, she and her brother were often neglected; only brought out for parties to show off as if she were a mother who really did care and who was proud of her.

“I’m so proud of my darling daughter. She means the world to me,” her mom would say at parties and social gatherings. It was all a load of dog crap. But her mother, with her eyes that sparkled and her smile that flashed, had fooled everyone there. A chameleon was what her mother had been, able to change when the setting called for it.

Becca looked at a can of beer in her hand and wondered if she was turning in her old man. Now there was a horrifying thought. She tried not to think too much about it. Her stress level was bad enough as it was. She didn’t want to give herself ulcers. If she did, the nano-medical bots inside her stomach would fix it up, but then she’d have to pay afterwards to some nameless CEO of Hippocare who was bribing the politicians to let this form of costly medical care stay in service. Becca, like everyone else, was born with nano-bots (also called bugs), that were inserted into the mother’s womb. But not everyone could afford to keep paying for software updates when they turned a certain age. So many were still without medical care. Patients before Profit was the motto of Hippocare. But really it should have been Profit before patients with what they charged.

All these nagging thoughts. Drowning in a sea of worries. She didn’t need this. She needed to stop thinking about Ted, and whether or not he’d call her back. If only her husband was still alive. She missed him so much. He had never thought she was ugly. But thinking about him just made her stomach hurt.

What she needed was to get out. She could take a trip to downtown. Her jet car, a magenta color with a neon yellow stripe, was waiting for her in her driveway. Activating her jet car by thought, the driver side door read her brainwaves and her chip and then opened for her.  She then told the car where she wanted to go. Its wheels gently folded into the frame of the car as it hovered up to 200 feet in the air before taking off like a stream of neon light. The trip wouldn’t take long. Jet cars could travel 300 mph.

Only a few vehicles were out flying. It was true that many of them didn’t have passengers in them, but were instead piloted by computers. Some of the vehicles were even robots themselves, like the driver that delivered Becca’s food to her the day before. Like the robotic vehicle, many of the vehicles on the road were making deliveries to the gargantuan number of homebodies. Due to computers controlling cars that ran on a gridline, monitored by the FSA (Flying Safety Administration), traffic lights had been consigned to history books.

And the FSA computer was doing its job, so for, in making sure that Becca’s jet car was flying to the destination she had asked it to go, and that it stopped at certain intervals. As she flew to the huge spires of downtown L.A. that functioned as a castle among the urban sprawl, Becca knew that the FSA was no guarantee of her safety. Computers, no matter how well programmed they were, were prone to error. It had certainly happened to her husband.

Don’t think about Kirk, dammit! she thought to herself. Reprimand herself as she may, it didn’t alter the facts that air-born collisions or crashes into buildings, or any other jet car problems, were still a very real thing. Each time she got into her jet car, she had a slight fear that what happened to her husband might happen to her. Becca would have prayed for safety, if she had of been a religious, God-fearing woman.

It took her only four minutes to get downtown. But those four minutes seemed more like twenty-five, especially since she hardly ever flew downtown to begin with.

Tall steel buildings brushed up against the sky. It should have been inspiring, a testament to human ingenuity. Except most of it wasn’t. Many of the buildings were abandoned after having been built up during a boom period, in which the amount of jobs people would need were overestimated. The shiny surfaces of the buildings still shone, though, since there were hovering robotics of all shapes that sizes kept them clean.

The car, gently hovering down, allowed Becca to see a bot in action. It was hovering on the side of a glass building. A gash of melted glass ran down the side of the building. Becca wasn’t sure what caused the glass to melt, but she really didn’t care. She did think it was interesting to watch the hover bot, though. It was twice as tall as her, a long cylinder. On its back was transparent tank boiling with hot liquid glass. Two lanky arms were outstretched, hooked to a roller with lots of holes. It ran over a piece of thin, but sturdy, piece of biodegradable mesh that was plugging up the gas. Out from the roller came hot glass.

Robots to take care of things, but hardly anyone to use the buildings. Becca laughed. Her surroundings offered no comfort. Though downtown was beautiful on the outside, it was cold and hollow on the inside.   The neon lights that had once burned without sleep were now burnt-out. Shadows engulfed the streets below and the lower buildings. Only her InSite Chip along with the computers in the buildings, fooled her into seeing light emanating, forming holograms and brightly colored, flashing billboards to try and excite her senses by playing on that primitive emotion of greed. Columns of old elevator shafts stood empty on the outside of the buildings from bygone days in which they were a joy to ride, offering the viewer a splendid view of the city. So many empty office buildings, so many empty restaurants and clubs. A near ghost town right in the heart of the city, except for the poor who lived in one of the government operated high rises.

Winding its way through the downtown area at different heights, curving and twisting around all the structures was a monorail. Once the pride of Las Angeles, it was now a curiosity from the past. A structure once propelled by magnetism and solar power, its glass tunnel atop its supports gave the illusion of one long hamster tunnel wrapped around the downtown area. Jet cars and declining population killed the monorail in the long run.

The GSN (Government Serving the Needy) shelters were the most depressing. The buildings were sound, up to safety codes, though it didn’t appear that way flying over them. The structures certainly didn’t look inviting, lacking that feeling of home. They gave the appearance of a group of barracks clustered together, drab and grey, which made Becca shudder as if just by looking at them would make her a prisoner.

Gleaming in a wide space in the center of the other buildings, almost blinding Becca, the food center stood out like a silver pin in a pile of dried pine needles. It grew food mainly from rice paddies in hydro-ponds as well as grains. Lab meat was also grown, though it wasn’t the highest quality lab meat; only the rich could afford that. A good lab-grown piece of beef was the Kobe beef of today when it came to price. As for Kobe beef, good luck affording that. With inferior meat, rice, and a slice of bread, the needy ate more like prisoners than they did law abiding citizens, and even then they had to pay for their meals by earning digifunds by doing odd jobs around the shelters.

Still, they were better off than the homeless.

Becca felt sick to her stomach. Harold could easily be a homeless, even though her mom did leave him a generous sum. With the way Harold spent his funds, he could be out sooner than anticipated. Then where would he be? The government wouldn’t want to help him. He was a liar. Better to let him go homeless and get rid of him.

No matter, she would take him in. Though she liked to think that was still far away. It was at least further away than her destination, which she was now at.

“Find a parking space below,” she told the car.

The car hovered down into what should have been a dark chasm, if not for the radiant lights of billboards and holograms. Becca had read that at one time holograms were projected by a type of laser light that formed an image. The idea was bizarre to Becca, as bizarre as music at one time being produced on a vinyl record. Even the vibrant animated neon signs were produced by holograms that were produced by a signal that manipulated the occipital lobe.

And yet, all the lights and images advertising different commercials didn’t make downtown L.A. feel any more alive. No one was out walking. At least none that Becca could see. No one running about in suits and ties, late to work, or casually strolling about in nice summer dresses, or shorts and a t-shirt. It was empty, despite the holographic images and animated neon signs.

At one time downtown was a fully living, breathing entity. Not a sickly individual just barely hanging on. It was a carnival of lights, of circus street performers, and of fresh hot dogs served from food carts. It was a hub of businessmen and women, running to and fro to get to their jobs. Wasn’t that the way of things? Work during the day, sleep at night, take a weekend off, repeat the cycle, and then die. Now it was just fend for food and die for many, particularly the homeless, and not even the robotics that kept it looking neat and clean and constantly made repairs could change that.

Of course, there were no homeless out and about. Security bots and android officers made sure the streets were clean of homeless vermin. Becca couldn’t see any of those robots either. But that didn’t mean that they weren’t there. They would come out when they detected danger or a homeless person roaming about.

Becca often wondered how the homeless got food and water if they couldn’t stand out on street corners anymore and beg. Where did they live, for that matter? Did they live out in the woods (though there were very little woods left since the Great Sprawl), did they live in dark alleyways? Maybe they foraged in the sewers. The government didn’t care if they died. Jobs were scarce enough, and if someone broke the law, which prohibited them from living in the GSN shelters, then it was better off that they died off rather than having to worry about taking care of them.

Becca sighed underneath the colorful lights. A hologram appeared before her of a new shop that had just been renovated. A clothing store that only the very rich could afford, meaning that the clothing didn’t have monitors or screens on them with advertisements. An image of a man flashed before her, hair slicked back, dressed nicely in a suit and tie.

“Don’t you want to look the best,” the man said. “At Regal Vanities we can” –

Becca walked on, not caring what the hologram had to say. Another hologram popped up. It was a young lady. She was wearing a bikini top and bottoms that hardly covered anything. She had tanned skin, and beach blond hair, and a white smile that almost blinded Becca’s eyes. “We all want the perfect beach body,” the image said. “And thanks to liposuction nanobots, such is possible. All you have to do is call 1800-sxy-body and you can have” –

Becca kept on walking. She planned on never getting overweight. Though Harold, her poor sap of a brother, could have certainly used nano technology to burn away his fat.

It seemed like there were nanobots for everything, and not just weight loss. Aside from weight loss, there were also nanobots for hair removal. If Becca had of wanted to, she could have paid to have nanobots living in her scalp, using lasers to burn away her hair at certain intervals if it grew too long. If that wasn’t enough, she could go completely overkill and pay exorbitant amounts of money for these microscopic bots to be put under the skin of her armpits, around her legs, and even her vulva, removing her of any hair before it grew out. She wasn’t about to pay that much money. Besides, she was fine being on the hairier side. Nonetheless, all these technological breakthroughs didn’t cure much of society’s vanity any.

As fas as Becca was concerned, the medical nanobots, which were called bugs, that lived within her were more than sufficient. If only the bugs had of been able to cure her mother’s cancer. But they had not been able to afford an upgrade on her mom’s medical insurance, so cancer consumed her.

Damn! It sure was dark down here, and none of the holograms and bright lights made it feel all that much lighter. Of course, if her chip went out, she would be plunged into complete shadows. The very little light that would be given would be the sliver of light from the sky, because the buildings were so tall. Sometimes she could see a faint sliver of blue, but it was gone quickly, blocked out by another overhang.

The glare of a yellow light from a 1st story floor indicated one of the few shops left in the area and it was an expensive one. All of the stores in this area, which were few in number, were beyond her paycheck. These were specialty stores, dealing with specialty furniture, clothing, and even physical books for those who didn’t want to make use of V-books (virtual books). How Becca would have loved to have bought a physical book, but she couldn’t afford it. As for the rest of the stores, they were specialty based, in which she couldn’t afford their wares either.

That’s not to say that she lived without the necessities of life. Thank goodness for 3D printers that could print just about anything, from pots and pans, dishes and silverware, to furniture and electronics. That said, Becca would have loved to have tried something traditionally made, such as a bed. She had read that they felt better than printed ones.  Therefore artisans’ guilds, that were really just big businesses, had popped up, able to charge high prices for non 3D printed items.

Becca passed by a row of shops, each of them closed except for one. From the shop window was art. The 3D printed frames and canvases weren’t the only things done by computers. Becca stared at each of the paintings, from an elegant nude to a majestic mountain to a tranquil sea with islands and a sunset, amazed at that all of them were done with the greatest care and precision by computers. The glory days of the artists, their heads overflowing with the intoxicating wine of romanticism were long gone. Becca didn’t know of any Leonardos, Michaelangelos, Frida Kahlos, Picassos, or Georgia O’Keefes in art galleries today. Art galleries were an archaic notion. Sellers wanted art that could be mass produced at a low cost on their end, selling it for a higher price on the buyers end, and computerized art met that demand for cheap labor. Another Sistine chapel ceiling? No problems. Bots the size of mice could scurry up a wall and use lasers to paint a ceiling. Michelangelo would be out of a job today because the lay person could tell the bots or the computer what kind of art was needed and it would come out perfectly. The art from the window certainly matched the very definition of perfection. If Becca wanted to, she could buy a painting, and an original at that. They were all within her funds.

She wouldn’t even have to worry about dealing with an art dealer. Near the front door was a deposit box. Above the box was an InSite chip scanner. All it took was reading her chip, deciphering over what paining she wanted, her nodding in agreement, and then a painting would be deposited. It was one of the few downtown stores that were within her price range.

At the moment, Becca didn’t care about any of it. She just wanted to know if anyone was out and about. She would have checked one of the few stores, but she knew she had no chance of getting in. The computer at the door would scan her chip, revealing she didn’t have the sufficient funds. She didn’t care. Stored in her closet were some of her own works of art that she had painted years ago. Some even hung on her walls.

Why was she down here? What gave her the idea that a trip downtown could possibly make her feel any better?

Then she remembered that this was the location of town with Club Starlight. One didn’t have to be super rich to get in. One only had to earn a decent wage, and she did. Dancing had been her thing growing up. From her late teens to her early twenties, Becca had been a clubber. She loved everything about it. The blaring music that could rupture an ear drum to the dancing with a bunch of strangers in close quarters, Becca loved it all. Maybe it was time to rekindle her younger self. At thirty-two she wasn’t getting any younger.

She pressed below her ears and thought ‘take me to the nearest dance club.’ Her chip made a bright red line appear before her eyes. Five minutes walking distance, said the chip in her head.

Becca followed the line straight, then turned when the line veered to the right. In front of her was a building that didn’t look so run down. Constructed of glass and steel, it towered over Becca, and yet, even from outside, it looked so empty. At least empty of people. From the number of lights that were on, it was obvious that there were many stores still in business in this building, though she was sure that these retails had their own drivers like everyone else.

At the side of the building was a magnetic elevator. Becca approached it, and the computer at the lift scanned her head, making sure she had the necessary digifunds. When it was confirmed that she did, she took the magnetic elevator up to the top floor. Passing by her view were a plethora of chain stores and restaurants. Though the stores were open to the general public, she couldn’t see anyone working. Of course there were life-like androids as well as average robots, but even the life-like androids had aspects of the way they were built that differentiated them from people. For instance, androids had to be designed to show seams around the outline of their face in order to have a removable faceplate. This was made into law so that people could differentiate between a real person and an android. As for the lack of customers at the establishments, this didn’t matter, since all of these restaurants and stores delivered anyway, including Club Starlight, who delivered drinks.

It was madness to think that because of all the bots and androids, all these jobs were taken away from people, people who could pay for their products and services. Instead of rectifying this problem by delegating more work to people, though, companies instead chose to make the prices higher for those who still held jobs. It could be done because there were few major companies left anyway. Most of the major companies were now corporations, and they were few in number. As such, whether they operated in food, repair, robotics, computers, furniture, or whatnot, they could charge obscenely high prices, the rich feeding the rich, and the with people like Becca was barely living comfortably.

On the other side of Becca, facing outward, was sad, decrepit LA. The elevator passed by a one of the tunnels of the magnetic railroad. Even at the speed the elevator was going, she was able to get a good luck through the glass tunnels and at its cracked interior, graffiti sprayed everywhere. What a sad sight! One of the few things the bots didn’t bother with in their upkeep.

Finally she reached the top where the dance club was. The elevator let her out in an open air area. Already it was getting dark. Faint stars were beginning to peak out of the sky, competing with the light pollution from the city down below. On the roof was one Club Starlight. Its garish neon-green sign with a neon yellow star flying through the name of the club flashed in front of Becca’s eyes. A holographic image of a man in a sparkly white suit complete with a white tie, blond hair combed over, and an image of a woman in a dazzling blue dress, locks of black hair falling to her shoulders, her lips dark red, greeted Becca.

“Welcome to Club Starlight,” said the holographic man “Where you can reach for the stars.”

“And where you can drink to the moon,” said his female holographic companion, flashing a smile as bright as a crescent moon.

The doors slid open and Becca walked into the club. This club reeked of wild college days, if such days were still around. Well, the atmosphere was wild at least. There wasn’t anyone in the club except for a robot bartender at the very end who would tell extremely bad jokes, sometimes recycling the same ones over and over again. The dance floor was a constantly changing kaleidoscope of different stars, planets, moons, and nebulas, traveling across the LED squares at light speed. A holographic moon, from a projector, hovered in the air above the platform. Stars traveled across the ceiling. The music blared a pulsating beat, one to bring out the primitive, carnal nature of humanity. As cliché as the expression was, Becca could hardly hear herself think in this place.

Becca found a clear-neon plastic table and sat down. A menu on the screen of her table exhibited bright, bold images of the alcohol in stock. They all looked good. But Becca could have easily stayed home and drank. She was hoping to meet some people to dance within the club. No such luck.

She tried calling Ted. Still couldn’t get a hold of him. What a jerk! Asking her to hang out and then ignoring her calls. It would have been fun to have brought him here. At least she would have had someone to dance with, even if she had to listen to his palavering over jet cars.

Speaking of clientele, Becca wondered how a place like this stayed in business, considering the lack of it. Obviously, there was their delivery services, but was it worth keeping the building open itself? Maybe there were groups of friends, corporate CEOs that got together and rented the place out at regular intervals. Still, then why not just have it open at those reserved times?

Whatever. It wasn’t worth it.

Becca left the bar without stopping to listen to the robot bartender’s cheesy jokes.

She took the elevator down a couple of floors, deciding she’d explore the mall. Most of the original shops were closed, having made way for big corporations to take up most of the space. Along the halls there were a bunch of restaurants, all owned by the same corporation, Cornucopia, which also owned Club Starlight, and two clothing stores at each end, both owned by Elaine June. Hardly anyone was shopping at them, at least not physically. From some of the restaurants and clothing came out small, robotic hover vans. They zipped by Becca in the halls, just narrowly missing her. Talk about unnerving.

Next, one of the androids came out from the clothing store and addressed her. “May I help you ma’am?”

Becca should have been comfortable with androids. But she wasn’t. It wasn’t that she was afraid of them. Just uncomfortable. They looked too human. The android was decked out in a full tuxedo, and his skin and hair follicles looked authentically human. But it was the seams around the face plate that she couldn’t take her eyes off of. Removing it could make one think of peeling the flesh off a man, down to his skull, even if the skull was electronic.

“I’m fine, thank you,” said Becca, walking off.

She turned a corner of the store. A bunch of closed shops lined the hall under pale yellow lights.

Fatigued and bored by it all, Becca decided to head home.

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Cold Shades Ch1: Revised and expanded

 

City-of-the-future

City of the Future by Linforth. Wikimedia Commons

 

Advisory: This novel as a whole is suggested for ages 18 and up due to strong language, harsh violence, adult subject matter and rape, and drug use.

Rebecca Brown, simply known as Becca, was typing on her computer screen, but not in the archaic method with her fingers on a keyboard. The words were pouring out of her mind and onto a holographic screen that popped out of a small slot from a computer that was as flat as and no bigger than a post-it-note.

Tense, angry, frustrated. There were times she detested her job. But with the lack of employment she was glad to have it. A love-hate relationship if there ever was one. Monotony aside, it would have been okay if not for the disagreeable customers she had to deal with on a daily basis. Today was no exception.

Where’s my damn movie? the words came up, a font loudly bold, hanging in thin air before her eyes.

Breathe, she thought to herself. There was no sense in losing her cool. To take extra-precautions, she had deactivated the instant v-message. Just because the customer was acting like an ass didn’t mean she had to. Still, her nerves were worn thin, so it was best to have the v-messenger off at her end so as not to think anything negative that could travel back to the customer and cause her to lose her job. It was just as well, seeing as she was teetering near the brink of unbridled rage.

Thoughtfully, trying to control her temper, she thought nice words, patient words, and these words within her mind were scanned and sent to the holographic monitor.

If it could be called holographic. In truth, holograms weren’t produced in the old fashioned way with light forming images that Becca had read about. The very screen Becca looked at was more like an illusion, the chip in her head and the miniature computer on the counter collaborating together to help her hallucinate it. When she was ready to send them, she would think press her finger under the lobe of her right ear, and think the word send.

Delete that paragraph, she thought to the computer, her finger under her right ear-lobe, letting computer know that she wanted those words deleted and not typed otu. She didn’t need the customer reading that he was a damned idiot. Even though it was true. It was hard working with fools day in and day out, and that was putting it lightly. It was overwhelming.

I’m sorry that you are having technical difficulties with your movie download, she thought the words out. We at Cinema Palace value your patronage and are doing everything we can to fix the problem.

Hah! Value patronage. That was a good one. Cinema Palace was the only movie streaming company, and it was owned by 4evR Play, one of the big seven of the corporations. It’s not like the client had anywhere else to turn to. At least the client’s options were limited. 4evR Play had bought out 95% of movies, both old and new, leaving only 5% for the smaller, independent streaming services to fight over. Be that as it may, 4EvR Play liked to give people the illusion of good service.

We are working on the problem as we speak, she continued thinking out her message. Have you checked to make sure that everything is working with your memory chip? Though really, Becca wanted to ask if everything was working okay with his brain.

The soft buzz of robotics hummed gently in the air, helping to soothe her temper just a bit. After all, they were a blessing by keeping up her house so she could focus on her work. She took a sip of a can of beer that was on the arm of her chair, only to clumsily knock it over. Out came the scrub beetles, as big as a thumb, scurrying about on metallic legs, to dry up the mess and then sanitize the floor. Becca took no notice of them, too engaged in finishing the v-mail.

Her stomach grumbled, letting her know in no uncertain terms that it needed nourishment. A break was in order. She used her index finger to press under her left earlobe: Send the current v-message. From a sensor under her skin, the order traveled up a wire to her brain chip to send out the message. End program, she said. She didn’t wish to interact with the disagreeable snot any more than she had to until her break was over, and she was in the mood for a long one.

“Restaurants,” Becca said, causing a holographic image to project a list of local eateries. “Chinese,” she continued, realizing she hadn’t had one of her favorite meals in a while; sweet and sour pork. A list of Chinese restaurants flashed in bright neon-letters across in front of her face, bold, big and bright. “Mrs. Yang’s” she said. Materializing straight out of the little computer box, right into her living room, was a Chinese waitress wearing a long red dress of silk, her black hair curled into a bun. Though only an illusion, the likeness of a real person was impeccable. It never ceased to amaze her.

She couldn’t speak for everyone though. Not everyone was pleased with this technology. Some hated it, calling it an invasion of their minds. But though there were a few Platos still in the world who didn’t approve of it, harping on the analogy of the cave with its shadows and illusions, such luddites had always been a rare breed.

“Welcome to Mrs. Yang’s,” the waitress said, her voice echoing into Becca’s brain chip and traveling to her ears via computer signal. “A house of the finest Chinese cuisine to satisfy you and your family’s appetites awaits you. Would you like to try our special today?”

“What’s today’s special?” asked Becca.

“Today’s special is twice-cooked pork, fried-cheese wontons, and three egg rolls, plus a drink, all for ten-ninety five.” A perfect 3D image of the food appeared before her.

Tempting price, but Becca didn’t care for twice-cooked pork. “No,” she said.

“Would you like to see our menu?”

“Yes.”

“Let me know when you’re ready to order.”

Illusions of smorgasbords, followed by descriptions of each one of the foods, popped up into her living room in crystal clear precision, as though they could be grabbed. Such realism further satiated her hunger. Becca browsed, not bothering to say another word to the waitress until she ordered. It would be pointless to do so anyway. The waitress was only a recorded person, only able to respond to certain words and phrases. It was a normal tactic done by all restaurant management; video record a person, then program that image and voice into the computer, in which they would respond to applicable questions. There was no use asking how she was doing. She wasn’t fine, sad, angry, or flustered; she just was as is. It would be pointless telling her that her red dress laced with etchings of golden dragons was appreciated. It wouldn’t change a mood that was never there. She was only the shell of the waitress, made visualized flesh by computer and by chip, fooling her brain and her eyes, not the actual person.

After looking over all the appetizers, entrees, dinners, and side dishes, Becca was still confident about her previous decision. “I would like the sweet and sour pork with a side of ham fried rice.”

“Anything to drink?”

“No.”

“Will that be all?”

“Yes.”

“Is this for pickup or delivery?”

“Delivery.”

“Plus driver tax, your total comes to fifteen twenty-five,” said the waitress. “Are you ready for us to scan your chip?”

“Go for it!” Becca assented.

Out from the computer came a blue laser, scanning the chip implanted in her brain. “Ms. Rebecca Brown, age thirty-one, of 4213 Willington Dr. Las Angeles, California,” said the waitress. “Is this correct?”

“Yes.”

“Is there anything else?”

“No.”

“Thank you for ordering from Mrs. Yang’s,” the image said with a bow. “Your food will be arriving shortly.”

Becca didn’t immediately return to work. She was sure that it was her hunger that was causing her to be short with the customer. She thought back to those meditation techniques she had learned and decided now was as good a time as any to put them to use.

On the floor, legs crossed in the lotus flower position, Becca breathed deeply. It wasn’t the customers fault. The customer was trying to survive, just like her, just like everyone else. Patience, kindness, understanding. That was what was needed now. Not anger. Let it go, Becca thought to herself. Let it go.

If Becca hadn’t felt so hungry, she would have even done some yoga. But her disagreeable tummy wouldn’t allow it at the moment.

Lotus position alone, though, wasn’t working. Bitter thoughts kept invading her mind, a place that should have been her temple of tranquility. Thoughts, bringing her down. They had a tendency to do that. The key was to cultivate a spirit of gratitude, to be grateful for what she did have. Digifunds were hard to save. Customers were almost always impossible to deal with. But Becca had a roof over head and food in her fridge, something that couldn’t be said for a lot of people. Better yet, with all the tech she had at her disposal, life was good. She didn’t have to worry about the stress of going out. She could be in the comfort of her own home.

Good vibes alone weren’t working. Music was what was needed. Not wanting to move the position of her hands, she said out loud, “computer, play my meditation music.” The music played inside her head, so only she could hear it. Her anger drained away to the music that flowed like a river into a tranquil sea.

Though ordering out was convenient, it came with a price and that price was more than money. She was certain that she would be dreaming of Mrs. Yang’s off and on, just as she dreamed about some of her other favorite restaurants. It wasn’t uncommon for these companies to hack into the chip when one was asleep to send images into it, causing customers to dream. It was the most effective form of advertising ever. Originally, there had been laws passed against this, the courts having deemed it as an infringement upon peoples’ privacy, but the ruling didn’t hold up long. Corporations made the argument that they ‘weren’t actually prying into peoples’ thoughts,’ but rather were ‘only broadcasting their products from stores and chains that the consumer had already purchased from.’ While this had still seemed invasive, in the end money and corporate interests won out against the lawmakers and legislatures against it. Bribery was a surefire way to get politicians on the side of the corporations.

In any event, it wasn’t like many people cared about the advertisements in their sleep. Society was bombarded by advertisements on a daily basis. At this very moment, Becca was wearing a T-shirt with advertisements on it, as well as pair of slacks with ads, running down the legs. Besides, most corporations were smart enough to know not to overdo it. Usually the dreams were subtle, sometimes to the point that people could hardly remember them. Sometimes only the subliminal message remained. It wasn’t like corporations were broadcasting advertisements into peoples’ heads while they were awake. At least not yet!

At the moment, such was only a small thought. The meditation calmed her, and decided to experience a movie. From her slender computer a world sprung up around her. Trees sprang out from the floor, the floor was now covered in grass and purple wild flowers. The confines of her living room slipped away, making way for snowy white French Alps in the distance, and a stone cottage with a thatched roof in the forefront. An old green door, the weathered paint peeling off it, creaked open and out came a young girl, no more than fifteen years of age, wearing a bonnet and a simple dress, with a wicker basket of cheese, bread, and wine.

Enamored in her favorite French film, Becca wondered what it would have been like to have lived back in 19th century France. From the V-books she had read, it didn’t sound all that pleasant. Women were second class citizens, not even given the right to vote. Education wasn’t at the fingertips, or at the brain chip-tip as the modern expression went, like it was now.

None of that mattered, though. Becca couldn’t help but feel nostalgic for a time period she had never lived, one before all the huge amount of tech and the great sprawl that had devoured most of the landscape aside from specially designated parks. She wondered what it would be like to have land that she could walk on, without all the buildup that happened during the era of the Great Sprawl, to smell flowers (what did flowers even smell like), to walk through real groves of trees and not simulated ones. What would it be like to wear a 19th century dress and bonnet, devoid of advertisements from modern day jeans and a T-shirt? Oh, how she loved the clothing from that time period and desired a closet of those dresses and bonnets for herself, especially the ballroom dresses.

There was no use in cogitating over it. Life was better now and it was all thanks to modern tech. It was tech, the signal being relayed from her small, palm-held computer to her chip that gave her the illusion that she was in 19th century France without any of the danger. Yes, it was a phenomenal time to be alive. And a great deal of it was because of the chips in peoples’ heads, Insite Chips, developed and programmed by Big Bytes, promising a better world.

And a better world Big Bytes was giving her through her Insite Chip, whisking her away to a time long ago.

Absorbed in her favorite story of a young farm girl who wished to marry a man of the upper-class, all seemed well. Truthfully, the story was pure French sap, but Becca didn’t care. She was lost in the countryside, soaring over the fields below the mountains with young Vanessa as she ran through the flowers.  Bliss, the whole thing was pure, simple bliss.

‘Your food is here,’ said a pleasant computer automated voice in her ear. Becca ordered the film to shut down, plunging her back into her boring living room.

At her door was a Delivery Bot. The robot was constructed simplistic enough, being built more like a car, and able to hold numerous orders in its interior which was always heated by a heat lamp. Like an average car, it hovered. A large metal neck jutted out from the front, ending in what looked like a pair of oversized binoculars for vision. It held a bag of food out in one metallic hand, while the other hand was a card scanner, greedily outstretched, as hungry for the payment as Becca was for the food. Becca quickly paid it. No chit-chat, no time wasted. Just pay and eat.

As the delivery bot flew off, Becca thought back to the history books she read, which told of a time that human delivery had caused too many problems because of irresponsible and their demands for higher wages. Robots were the logical answer to the problem. And not just for restaurants, but for grocery stores too. Robots now delivered everything from fresh eggs, meats, and fish, to cereal and bread, to cleaners and soaps and so forth, meaning one never had to leave their home to go to go the grocery store, either. Truth be told, the robots were so effective that most restaurants, including Ms. Yangs, didn’t have a main hub for them to eat. Robotic vehicles would fly to restaurants, get the ingredients needed, and just prepare the meals themselves. Becca, who was digging into her meal as she started her film back up, knew that within the robot diver that had delivered her meal had been other robotics that had mixed the ingredients together before the inner oven cooked the food. This had the advantage of making sure the food was still hot when it arrived, and her meal was hot, having just got out of the oven.

But the best was for Becca was that she didn’t have to leave unless she really wanted to.

The part of that film that always scared her now popped up. A pair raging wolves, eyes glowering, leapt out of the flowers and towards Vanessa. After all these years of watching it, the scene still scared Becca. For it didn’t feel like the wolves were jumping towards Vanessa, but also towards the viewer. Becca felt like she was in the field with the wolves circling around her. Surprised as usual, she spilled her drink and a little bit of her food.

Not a problem! The maid bot, built low and hovering only a couple of inches off the ground, came by and burned, with pinpoint precision, away any food particles and evaporated any liquid off of her tile floor, allowing her the freedom to continue the movie uninterrupted.

Becca felt a sense of satisfaction when the film was over. Moved to tears, like she always was when Vanessa married the nobleman, Becca was grateful that there holographic films that offered the diversion away from real life.

Finishing her meal, Becca felt like a walk was in order. While it was true that many people chose to stay inside, living in a state of eternal hibernation, she craved the fresh air. Not wanting to deal with disagreeable customers at the moment, Becca walked towards the door and stepped outside, as the long, extending robotic arm came out from the kitchen to pick up her trash and toss it in the kitchen incinerator. She could hear the lasers evaporate the trash.

Outside she was greeted by houses spread out for miles in all directions, a sea of concrete and plaster. In-between blocks of neighborhoods, one might come across a store or one of those rare sit-down restaurants. There were, of course, office buildings, but they were more conglomerated downtown.

Soaring in the sky above Becca were a couple of jet-cars. Though she had a car, she hated them ever since her husband had died in one. Fairly frequently, the news reported terrible car wrecks. One that stuck out in her memory most vividly was of a drunk driver who, before getting himself drunk, had dismantled the automated flying program. He had crashed into an office building, killing a CEO and damaging lots of droids and other computer equipment. One would have thought that since cars were computer operated that wrecks would have been a tragedy consigned to the annals of history. But this was not the case. Aside from those who loved the thrill of driving their own cars and who would find ways to deactivate the self-driving mechanisms, there was also the fear of cyber-terrorists from other nations who might get a sick thrill out of hacking into someone else’s car terminal and rerouting the designated safe route into a building or into a skyway with cars, flying in the opposite direction. It didn’t seem to matter how many security programs were newly put in place, as hackers loved the challenge of finding ways around them. In short, Pandora’s Box had been opened, and not solely by flying cars, but by the advent of putting computers into cars, back in the early 2000s, even before they could fly.

Becca continued on her walk, choosing not to focus on the macabre scenario. It made her think too much of her deceased husband.

Instead she kept her eyes open for interesting people she could possibly meet. But where were they? Come to think of, when had she last seen people out and about? The neighborhood was a silent cemetery. About half the houses were probably deserted, remnants of bygone days, a time known as the Great Sprawl when people had spread even further to the outskirts of town.

A ro-mower was silently droning as it hovered just barely over the grass, cutting the blades with a spinning laser. A couple blocks further, a louder noise was generated by a swarm of nano-flies cutting the branches off a tree, a pile of sawdust at the base. That was it. Just a couple of robotics out and about. Not a single human.

She was about to give up, but then she saw him.

He was tall and broad shouldered. He wore a polo shirt and a pair of khakis. Upon his shirt an advertisement was ending for a new cereal brand, making way for an ad about the newest in automated indoor sprinkling systems to put out house fires. An ad was running down the video strip on his khakis for the mind-phone update that could be installed in the computer chip.

He flashed her a smile that looked as though it could come off the cover of a romance novel.

“Hello there,” said Becca.

“Hello,” he reciprocated. “Where do you come from?”

Becca shrugged. “Just this neighborhood, I’m afraid. Nothing exciting, I know.”

“Nothing exciting? I can hardly believe that, Ms…. Uh, what’s your name?”

“My name is Rebecca Brown,” she said, extending her hand for him to shake. “But just call me Becca.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Becca,” said the man, shaking her hand. “I’m Theodore Green. Kind of a dorky name, I know.”

“Not at all! It sounds strong, masculine.”

“That’s very kind of you. Anyway, you can call me Ted.”

“Okay, Ted,” Becca nodded. “Do you live nearby?”

Ted shook his head. “No. I live on the other end of town. But you know, getting restless and all, I decided I’d take a scenic drive.”

“Scenic!” exclaimed Becca in disbelief. “Why? I didn’t think the neighborhood south of here looked much different than this one. Also, why even take a walk here when you can just take one on your end?”

“I’m sorry, but I’m not sure of what you’re getting at,” said Ted.

“Oh, don’t worry about it. It seems kind of weird, but whatever.”

“Say, do you like cars?” he asked, changing the subject.

“Not really. My husband was killed in one.”

“I’m so sorry to hear that,” said Ted. “Man that sucks! I hope I didn’t dredge up any painful memories.”

“It’s okay. I’d like to take a look at your car anyway,” she lied, two factors prompting it, her feelings of infatuation and it being rude to turn down someone friendly.

Besides, she had not gone on a date for quite some time. She needed to get out more, to dance, to feel the embrace of the opposite sex. She had been working far too hard not to indulge in some healthy human interaction. Customers sending angry emails, in which she reciprocated twice as angrily, was not good bonding with her fellow man.

“Right on!” said Ted. “Follow me.” Becca did so, without thinking of the potential consequences of blindly following a stranger. Her parents had warned her, ever since she was a child, of the dangers of just trusting anybody. It was one of the reasons they had enrolled her in virtual classes, so as not to have her deal with bullies and school shootings. In this case, her parents would certainly warn her against following a stranger to his car. And Ted was strange, strange in his mannerisms, and with the way he answered questions.

It only took a minute to come to Ted’s pride and glory, an Orange Bolt 3000. It was sleek and beautiful. Its coloring was that of a sunset, a bright orange slowly fading to a purple with a yellow stripe running across the middle of it. It was modeled after the old convertibles in that it lacked a roof.

“Would you like to hop in for a drive?” Ted wore an expression bespeaking of himself as the perfect gentlemen as the car door automatically opened. “We can go to your place or mine. Maybe we could even get a beer, chill out, watch a movie?”

“Gee, thanks for the invite,” said Becca. “But, I’m not ready for that yet. I mean, let’s get real for a sec. I just met you.”

“I’m sorry, but is there a problem with the car?” asked Ted.

Problem with the car? Becca couldn’t believe her ears. She hadn’t said a thing about the car. Still, he was kind of cute. “How about we meet up some time,” she ventured, not wanting to ruin an opportunity of jumping back into the dating pool.

“That’d be great! What do you like to do?”

“Let’s go to a bar,” she said, staring at an advertisement for her favorite beer playing across his shirt. “We could go to a bar and clubbing.”

“Awesome,” said Ted, excitedly. “I’m down for whatever. Maybe I can pick you up in my car.”

“Cool, let’s do it! But I’ll meet you there. I’m not ready to ride with you yet. No offense, but you are a stranger.”

“Can I get your number?”

Becca reluctantly gave it, and in turn he gave her his, the small chip in her head saving it. Now she noticed that the screen on Ted’s polo was primarily showing off different cars. They made a little more chit-chat before Ted drove off.

Overall, Becca had found the conversation to be peculiar, and she was a little annoyed that it often came back to his car. Before leaving he had at least talked about his car for five minutes, boasting about how wonderfully efficient it was. Yet, he was kind enough and she didn’t sense any danger from him.

Becca shrugged. Maybe she didn’t get it, but she didn’t care. She had been trying so hard to forget about her husband that she would take the quirks of a new boyfriend, even if those quirks were talking about cars. Also it’d be a lie to say that she didn’t have her own interests, such as movies and books, which could make her quirky. Who was she to judge someone for loving cars?  She only hoped that if something were to develop between the two of them that she could broaden his horizons.

Becca could have gotten lost in her reverie of finding romance until she remembered that today was the day that she had to visit her deadbeat brother. She didn’t relish this. But she had made a promise to be his wet nurse and she was stuck with her decision. Taking a deep breath, she reminded herself that he lived within walking distance. She could keep the visit brief.

Walking briskly, Becca found herself there in no less than five minutes. A laser came down from the front porch, scanning her chip. Only after it had analyzed all the data did it grant her entrance.

She found her brother sprawled out on the couch, a slug of a man, slowly but steadily drowning under waves of his own fat. The rolls of fat couldn’t hide the advertisement playing on his shirt for a new virtual game that came out, a shooter. Becca tried to block the image out. She didn’t need all that visual noise, especially noise dealing in violence.

“I don’t suppose you brought me something to eat?” her brother asked.

How typical! Of course that would be the first question out of his voracious vacuum of a mouth.

“No, Harold,” she said gently. “I’m sorry. It must have slipped my mind.”

Peaceful thoughts, gentle thoughts. It was her job to be longsuffering, as all humanity should be.

“You know my funds are limited,” he pointed out.

“I understand that,” she said, patience still in her voice.

“I feel like nothing I do matters. Because I can’t do anything. All I ask of you is to help me out a little more.”

Becca sighed. She didn’t have time for this. She wanted to be patient. But it was so hard. She felt more like a maid than a sister to her brother. “I am willing to help you, but you also have to help yourself.”

“So, what am I supposed to do?” he pressed the matter.

“You know, if you hadn’t of lied on the questioner, you probably wouldn’t be immobilized here on your fat ass,” Becca finally snapped, without worrying the least bit about candor.

“Ah, cut me some slack! You know that I tried to sound convincing.”

“Harold,” cried out Becca in exasperation, “you told the computer that you had prior work experience as a manager! How the hell did you think that would go over?”

“I wasn’t thinking” –

“So what else is new?” Becca cut him off. “Harold, even if they didn’t verify through your work history and past employers, the lie detector chip is more than enough to tell them that you are full of shit. A quick scan from a computer monitors your heart rate, your brain waves, just about everything that could give you away. I shouldn’t even be telling you this. You should be smart enough to know this.”

“Well, I’m not, so excuse me!” shouted Harold. “I’ve never been as smart as you. Never as brilliant.”

“Harold. You have genius level abilities in the fields of history and linguistics. You have no right to call yourself stupid. In your case it’s not about brilliance, it’s just about common sense.”

“Yeah, well I guess I lack that. Besides, brain chips can translate every language now anyway, so what use would any organization have for me?” he grumbled. “It was only a hobby.”

Becca was flustered. Why did this have to be so hard? She and Harold had always clashed. This was nothing new. And yet, she couldn’t help but feel sorry for him. Most problems he faced in life he had brought on himself, but society didn’t make it any easier, not with computers and all having taken over the interview process.

It had started out simple enough, with many large companies using computers to do online applications. Now computers were advanced enough to conduct interviews, ascertaining the honesty of the interviewee and assessing his or her skills and weaknesses. In theory it was supposed to be simple, but in reality it made life more difficult. No matter how smart the AI was, no matter what questions the computer could ask, no matter how capable it was of reading heart-rate and brain waves to analyze honesty, there was still room for a great margin of error.

Though the misfortunes couldn’t all be blamed on a computer. Those damn head chips more than did their part. The InSite chips, produced by BigBytes, handled everything, from typing on the computer, to seeing holographic movies, to entering the neuro-scape when asleep, to storing phone numbers; there was nothing it couldn’t do, and that included helping a computer decipher when someone was cheating.

Harold had had the misfortune of being interviewed by a particularly rigid computer program from a prestigious educational firm. He had wanted to be a museum curator, and he had studied hard for many years at an expensive virtual university, paying out huge sums of money and appropriating a large debt in student loans, only to have it capitulate in a small apartment. The thread which had led to his career demise had slowly unwound into a tangled mess after he had graduated. He had made the mistake of taking a year sabbatical before finding a job, in order to help out their sick mother. In retrospect, Harold should have just taken that opportunity to interview for the museum.

But could have he in good conscious?

Their mother had been being treated for cancer for over a year, and she had gradually been growing worse. Nothing the life-like android nurses could do could help her. There had been a couple of flesh and blood doctors there, but they had seldom visited her, except at brief intervals, having so many other things to attend to. Becca had visited her a few times a month when she could manage. If she had of known her mother’s condition was that bad, she would have visited her more. For this Becca still felt heavy guilt. It was Harold who had taken up the mantle of caring for their mother. It was he who had helped her improve for a little while. It didn’t last, but for a short time she had been happier.

However, her brother’s sacrifice had come with a price. The computerized interview had asked him if he had been engaged in any education or work in that one year gap. When he had told the computer that he was looking after his mother, the computer had only responded with, ‘I don’t understand. Have you been employed or enrolled in any schooling this past year?’ He should have said no. But he had known that doing so would have brought on the high probability of barring him from future interviews. So, panicking, he had lied, telling the computer that he had spent the last year enrolled as a supervisor for robotic tour guides at historic sites. It didn’t take long for the computer to read his brain waves and his heart-rate, finding that he was lying. Since then, Harold’s reputation had spread through other computer employment systems, effectively lowering his chances fifty-fold of landing a job.

Now, her brother was living off of borrowed funds from their deceased mother and from Becca herself. He could hardly pay the tuition costs back and he barely had a sufficient amount for his own living conditions. It wouldn’t be long until Becca would have to take her brother in to live with her, seeing as the funds within his chip would soon be depleted.

Yes, it was only logical. Becca should have taken her mom in. Then again, why should she have? Why should Harold have even bothered? It wasn’t like Becca’s parents were there for them that much. While they had worked, the robotic butler and maid had watched after her and her brother. And they were cheap robotics at that. They were built to walk on four legs, and looked more like a mechanical set of dogs than they did people. Becca’s parents couldn’t bother to pay for the life-like androids, even though they could have afforded it. The most the robotic nanny and butler did was tell them when to go to bed, help fix them food, and prevent them getting into any danger. In a way, it was her mom’s fault for not being there for them. Why should she have expected any of her kids to be there for them? Becca felt like crap for thinking this. Harold, in many ways, was a better person than her.

“I’m sure something will come up,” Becca lied.

“Yeah, maybe if I can get some pills to take that change the heart rate and the brain-waves to fool the computer,” said Harold.

“Those are illegal!”

“Oh, I’d sell my own mother to afford pills to cheat the system,” he shrugged.

“Not funny,” said Becca. She wanted to slap him for that remark. But she controlled herself by remembering that her brother never had much of a filter to begin with. Besides, despite that utterly tasteless joke over their dead mother, he had still been the one to watch over her (not Becca), thus getting himself into this predicament. “Harold,” she said in a softer tone, “I know it’s rough right now. But you’re bound to find something.”

“Like what? Who in the hell would have me?”

Becca was at a loss for words. Very few companies would hire him. “What can I do to help make your life easier?” she asked instead.

“Well, you could buy me some of those cream filled cookies. You know the kind I like! I can then happily gorge myself on those. You can also buy me some packs of my favorite beer. I can use those to vomit out my sorrow.”

“Harold,” she said gently, “what good would that do?”

“You’re one to talk, you and your pious, holier-than-thou attitude,” pointed out Harold, shaking a fat fist at her, without even standing up. “You at least have a job. I don’t have jack-shit! How dare you have the nerve lecturing me about how morally wrong slowly killing myself is! Well, society is slowly killing me a little bit each and every day. If I’m to die, at least let it be from drinking myself to death, or a heart attack brought on by a sugar rush.”

Becca blushed. He was right. She had no right to condemn him. She had to be there for him. He was family. It was the least she could do in failing their mother.

“I’m sorry, Harold,” she whispered. “I’ll see what I can do.”

Outside, Becca wiped the sweat from her brow. Her heart was pounding. Anxiety was rising from the pit of her stomach like lava from a volcano. Talking to her brother had worked her up more than she thought it would. She reached in her pocket, took out a case of pills and popped one in her mouth to ease the stress.

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What’s the Plan?

It’s no secret that I have taken a rest from WordPress since last December. There are times one has to step away from the screen and find themselves, a process that can’t always be in our writing.

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Image from Giphy.

In my case, I have had to step back and ask myself what my goals and ambitions as a writer are. Do I keep up a Twitter account to promote my work? Do I write for Medium? Do I try to find work on Upwork? Should I try my hand at Transcribeme? Should I keep writing articles to submit to other publications? Maybe I should try ghostwriting? Or should I just focus on my short stories and novels and hope to grow patrons as the years go by? These are all valid questions, considering writing is hard work (don’t let anyone tell you otherwise) and takes up a lot of time. Where do I place my priorities?

I can’t speak for every writer, but I hope I can give some thoughts that ignite the wiring in your brains into deep contemplation.

The Noise of Twitter

I have pretty much given up on Twitter. It brought out the worst in me. People have unequivocally told me that the platform is necessary for promoting your work as a writer. But I have my doubts. Twitter should be renamed to Screecher, as it’s not so much the tweeting of little songbirds, but the screeching angry hawks. Whether it’s mean words (which I was guilty of sometimes) or trying to promote your work among millions of other writers, it’s an all-around noisy platform. I acknowledge that Twitter has its place, and maybe I’ll return to it, but for the time being I have no desire to.

 The Joy of Medium

Medium is competitive too. I don’t get nearly as many claps as I would like. It can also be maddening to see writers who are no more than superficial and simplistic thinkers, fools who speak like they are wise, get thousands to tens of thousands of claps, while the deeper thinkers who can comprehend and see the issues of life from many different levels get ignored. Sometimes I feel like Medium isn’t a place if you want to be analytical. Though my understanding and perception about the ways of life are greatly limited, I have tried to think deeply about issues facing us, only to have very little feedback. Of course, I think most people favor extremism on either side, rather than moderation and balance.

So, for the most part, instead of writing about deep issues on Medium (though I have once in a while), I have focused more on writing about art and video games. And though I haven’t gotten loads of claps (at least not from strangers) on my articles, I still find a joy in having my own two publications, Reflections in the Portrait and Philosophical Gamer.

Granted, though it’s competitive like Twitter, at least I have more room to express myself. These two publications have helped me to understand more about why I love art and video games. Therefore, darn straight I’m going to keep up with Medium, even if I don’t have a lot of followers.

Trying to Advertise Myself on Upwork

Oh, how it would be wonderful to land a freelance writing job easily. But I have found that it’s easier to think of being self-employed as a freelance writer than it actually is to find a job. While fishing out in those open waters of the Craigslist, I have often felt a bite only to have my catch swim away. Then again, there are some real bottom feeders on Craigslist, so perhaps it’s for the best. But it can still be discouraging.

Still, if I’m going to have a client get away from me, I might as well fish in reputable sites instead of the polluted waters of Craigslist. However, in order to do this, I must be a salesman, able to advertise myself, and I have no idea how to promote myself. Sure, I can have all the skills and qualifications, but if I don’t know how promote myself, how can I find work?

TranscribeMe

“Youl would be a good transcriber,” one of my friends told me. But would I? He had recommended TranscribeMe. I thought, sure, why not? Writing down what people say. How hard can it be? Especially online where you can slow down and pause a recording.

However, I found the exam to get into TranscribeMe as maddening and stress-inducing. The idea of putting all my time into an examen and then wait to see if I passed it or not is just too much. I’ll pass.

Submitting Articles

I have submitted articles before, such as opinion pieces like this one. Still, I’ve had articles that I’ve put a lot of time, effort, and research into turned down before, too. So, while writing can get your name out there, there is so only so much room in publications that people are competing to get into and even online publications are competitive.

Ghostwriting

On the surface, ghostwriting sounds easy. Write well and get hired. But finding someone trustworthy to ghostwrite for is a whole other challenge. Sure, I’ve been paid for ghostwriting before. But there have been many more times in which clients have flaked out on me, disappearing like ghosts in the night, even when I tried to work with them and their schedules.

Focusing on my Novels and Short stories.

So far, I’m finding what’s most enjoyable for me is focusing on writing my short stories and novels, and earning money from patrons who support me. Though I don’t have a lot of patrons on my Patreon account, I have a few who believe in my vision of self-publishing a book, and many other friends who are not patrons, but who are highly supportive of my talents.

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Image from Giphy

A Lot to Consider as a Writer

So, there is a lot to consider as a writer. Writing takes time, and the days are so short. Where does one put their time and effort? There is certainly writing for enjoyment* and writing for profit. Most of us want to make a living writing. But to make a living as a writer takes years. Is it best to focus on practical writing, such as ghostwriting and the writing of articles or academic papers, or is is better to follow one’s heart and work on their fiction? Either way, how much time should be spent on self-promoation using Upwork and Twitter for each? It’s a question I stil haven’t found the answer to.

 

* I use the term enjoyment lightly, considering that even writing novels, short stories, children’s books, and even poetry can still be a lot of work

 

Journaling to Become a More Effective Writer

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Diary from Wikimedia Commons. 

In our daily lives with our busy schedules, taking time to journal, especially when we are already writers, seems like a waste of time when we could be focusing on writing our novels, short stories, or articles. However, ever since I have resumed journaling, I have noticed the opposite. Journaling has helped me with my creative writing and my articles. But how could this be so?

Here are my three observations.

 

Journaling Gives me a Schedule 

As writers, it can be hard to find a schedule, partly because writing is such a flexible pastime, parttime, or fulltime activity. And as much as we want to be responsible adults, with flexibility comes complacency. For flexibility is power and we all know what Uncle Ben said to Peter Parker who became Spider-man. Responsibility with flexibility is hard to put into place, the two of them being competing for our attention We are easily distracted creatures, prone to veg out on Youtube, Facebook, or, worse, Twitter. Responsibility coming with age? Sometimes, but other times hardly.

However, journaling encourages us to have a schedule. Most people journal at night, when the day is coming to a close. But there is no written law of when one should journal. Just find time to journal.

Ever since I’ve gotten back into journaling, I have noticed that a schedule has slowly developed for my writing. Before journaling, I usually work on my novels and short stories, or an article. That’s not to say that I don’t have lapses. Sometimes I’m still an unproductive slug. But I have many more moments of productivity, and I feel that journaling has been the key to helping me with my productivity in my other writing projects. Being a night owl, this productivity usually hits in the early evening.

 

Journaling Helps me Express Myself

Whether we want to admit it or not, we put much of ourselves in our stories and novels. Even if we are writing characters who are the polar opposites of us. It doesn’t matter if the writer is religious and the character he/she created is an atheist, or if their characters are vegetarians and they aren’t, or if they love sports but their characters hate it. Complete polar opposites of characters can be created that don’t reflect the author’s viewpoints, while the writer’s viewpoints still sink into the overall framework of the story, even if subtlety, which is often the case.

Self-expression and clarity of thought are particularly important when writing non-fiction papers such as articles or opinion pieces.

It’s why journaling is important. Think of it as an exercise in self-expression. I don’t know about all of you, my dear readers, but sometimes I think it just might be a more strenuous workout to exercise our minds to develop strong and clear self-expression rather than exercise our body with weight lifting, jogging, or pushups. Journaling allows us to develop what I call the thought-muscles to better express ourselves when we write fiction. For what is fiction but an exaggerated form of reality? Fiction is at least a great way to explore reality.

 

More Journaling Equals More Writing of my Other Work

Because journaling helps me set aside a schedule and helps me to develop my thoughts, I am able to write more of my fiction and articles. Part of my unproductivity came from feeling overwhelmed over the mountain of words I had to write and the numerous projects I had to finish. In a way, as cliche as this may sound, journaling has taught me that writing is a journey and not a destination. I, therefore, have been feeling less stressed about finishing projects by a certain date, which caused me to break down and not work on any projects at all. Ironically, I have gotten much more done ever since I started relaxing with journaling.

 

In Conclusion

Journaling can work wonders. It’s what’s encouraged me to focus on my other writing, to not be so hard on myself if I have an off-day, and to start posting on WordPress again.